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Ashley Hutchings & Ernesto De Pascale – MY LAND IS YOUR LAND (Talking Elephant TECD.265)

No season seems to go by without an Ashley Hutchings-related reissue, it seems! This latest gives another chance for a comparative obscurity that first appeared in 2008 on the Esoteric label – but wait, the Talking Elephant disc is actually an expanded edition, of which more detail in due course. The project is an affectionate celebration of cultural links between England and Italy, fostered by Ashley’s passion for all things Italian and his discovery of a kindred spirit in the eminent journalist, producer and broadcaster Ernesto De Pascale, “the Italian John Peel”, who sadly died in 2011 just one day short of his 53rd birthday. The eclectic collection of music on the album is the end-product of years of both men exploring each other’s cultures, and contains contributions from a stellar cast of 32 musicians (spanning both nationalities) that includes assorted Albionites and acolytes, Rainbow Chasers, Fairporter Chris Leslie, as well as folk stars Vin Garbutt and Lester Simpson, with sterling support from the likes of P.J. Wright and Joe Broughton and a number of Italian musicians including Ernesto himself. Naturally, the subjects of art, music, food, family and football figure large in this sequence of original compositions, most of them lovingly crafted by Ashley himself either with long-term collaborator Ken Nicol or with Ernesto; there’s also a superb Dunlop/Scaife number, Hare’s Breadth. The musical styles may vary, but mostly centre around solid-state contemporary acoustic-based folk-rock of the latter-day-Albion brand – with genuinely supportive and collaborative arrangements (and, notably, shared English and Italian lead vocals (step forward, Marilena Catapano) on key tracks like Patch Of Earth, Come And Buy, Song Of Two Bridges and New Italian Shoes). There’s also a couple of spoken-word items, including Come Join Together, an emotional and telling conjoining of bards (Dante Alighieri and Shakespeare). The whole sequence makes for very rewarding listening, and the digipack’s design and layout is really handsome. In that context, then, it may seem perverse for me to have to remark that my only possible reservation with Talking Elephant’s release concerns the presentation. Were it not for the existence of the 2008 edition of My Land Is Your Land – which I didn’t realise at the time did not then represent the final version of this project – I would be more than happy with the 2015 expanded edition; but the 2008 edition included an essential 16-page booklet (containing full lyrics, photos, detailed track-by-track personnel credits and a humble and poignant background note by Ernesto himself), for which there’s no counterpart in the present edition. And it’s slightly misleading that the 2015 release neither admits to its provenance, nor that its tracks have been resequenced, with the 2008 edition’s final track (the rousing Epilogue, featuring the vocal talents of Riccardo Marasco) now omitted (no doubt for legitimate artistic reasons) and three completely new tracks (the sparky New Italian Shoes, the beautiful Hare’s Breadth and the rather disposable cheesy-synthy Café Culture) inserted. But still, this new Talking Elephant release will be the one to have, for, since it evidently represents the complete project, it thus makes the most fitting tribute from one great artist to another, and one which we listeners can feel privileged to share.

David Kidman


Stick In The Wheel – FROM HERE (From Here Records SITW001)

Since I caught up with Stick In The Wheel in earnest around a year or so back, they’ve made a considerable impact on the folk scene, with multiple BBC Radio 2 Folk Award nominations and earning plaudits from every direction imaginable. And all that after only releasing three EPs (and subsequently a single)! Little wonder, then, that this debut full-length album is very likely the most eagerly-awaited of 2015. And without further ado, I’d proclaim it an essential acquisition, even if you’ve already managed to purchase any of the band’s previous (limited-edition) lovingly-handcrafted releases, from which five of this album’s songs are sourced (although in the main these are fresh new recordings, with an even sharper sense of presence). For it’s without a doubt one of the most intense and startlingly immediate records you’re likely to come across. And one of the most uncompromising – yet utterly refreshingly so. It’s guaranteed to knock you back, jolt you out of any complacency. For the direct and unapologetic credo of this East London band (comprising the basic core of singers Nicola Kearey and Fran Foote and dobro player Ian Carter, now with the addition of fiddler Ellie Wilson and percussionist Si Foote) is: “we play the music of our people; we sing in our own accents; we record in our kitchens and living rooms; this is our culture, our tradition.” The punk sensibility, then, couched in an entirely fearless Attitude: a raw, gritty and (appropriately) somewhat aggressive delivery of sentiments of as strong a relevance here and now as they were when they were first voiced; encouraging listeners to reconnect with the past by vitally drawing parallels with the present, whether through gutsy revisits of traditional songs or bringing the perennial themes into focus on immensely powerful self-penned material. Of the disc’s 14 items, five are urgent, deeply felt accounts of traditional songs that are born out of nothing less than a true and honest, real understanding and experience of the scenario depicted or discussed; quite simply, you’ll never hear a more authentic voicing of these feelings – the desperation and helplessness of Hard Times Of Old England, the bitterness of the jilted lover of The Blacksmith. Or for that matter a more believable expression of the frenzied “cult of madness” (Bedlam) which, like SITW’s committed, hard-driven treatments of Seven Gypsies and Bows Of London, positively invites and invokes parallels with contemporary everyday scenarios. The album’s non-traditional songs are just as extraordinary an achievement, being cutting tales of modern-day morality; the band-penned My Barra and Ewan MacColl’s Champion deal in different ways with the vicissitudes of the daily grind; Common Ground examines social injustice, while Me N Becky and Jail Song both take a prison-cell inmate’s view of crime and punishment (yet not without an element of colloquial humour). The highly charged, frenetic energy-fuelled nature of the album suddenly plunges into a more down-tempo measure for its final section, but loses nothing in intensity: the cathartic Hasp brings an enigmatic rumination on the nature of freedom, while the ostensibly more mystical By Of River and Who Knows meditate compellingly on the issue of displacement, with Who Knows forming an especially powerful centrepiece for the two variants of By Of River (the latter an ambient, more luxuriant studio-generated instrumental reprise). On every single song, the sheer attack of Nicola’s fiery, often harsh, straight-up WYHIWYG East-London-accented lead vocal is fully complemented by Fran’s sublime vocal harmonies and the sparse yet deceptively accomplished down-home instrumental accompaniment (in the main, spare but vital and immensely telling dobro and guitar from Ian, with occasional lithe and scrawny fiddle, some primal percussion and handclap rhythms). Even when some extra texture is conjured (weird and persistent laden drones on the album’s closing tracks, or spirited squeezebox on Me N Becky, for instance), the atmospheric, almost DIY ambience is maintained. Notwithstanding the perceptible shift around three-quarters of the way through there’s a distinct continuity of outlook and a unity of purpose that’s as satisfying as it is intellectually and musically confrontational. From Here exhibits a tremendous sense of presence and a definitively (and literally) unique identity.

David Kidman
www.stickinthewheel.com


Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin - WATERSHED (Dragonfly Roots DRCD003)

As you’ll recall, Phillip and Hannah won the BBC Radio 2 Folk Award for Best Duo in 2014, and this autumn they’ve consolidated that victory by releasing their fourth album, on which their now-signature sound and highly individual musical style are both present-and-correct and consistent. Each musician’s special talents are consummated and celebrated here – Phillip’s finely-tuned instrumental virtuosity on dobro, lap steel, guitars and harmonica interweaving creatively with and brilliantly complementing Hannah’s superbly configured banjo and fiddle/violin lines – while they each turn in some truly charismatic vocal work. Last year’s Live At Calstock CD was a rare beast among live albums – one of “obligatory-purchase” status – and yet in the studio Phillip and Hannah invariably prove quite as mesmerising, with their trademark haunting, imaginative and distinctive backporch folk-Anglicana-Americana fusion that grabs you intimately and doesn’t let go. This latest beguiling set was captured live by the estimable Mark Tucker in just ten days in his Green Room studio in the Blackdown Hills on the Devon/Somerset border, where Phillip and Hannah were splendidly augmented by Matt Downer (double bass) and James Taylor (drums, percussion and vibraphone), and with Rex Preston making a couple of brief appearances on mandolin. The accompanying press release states that on Watershed the duo away moves from the historical ambit of previous studio album Mynd and closer to the present-day with its unified “modern folk tale” concept that’s inspired by the idea of kith and kin and the consequences of split-second decisions on their lives. Having said that, there’s a strong sense of family history about this latest group of songs – Foundling and Yarrow Mill being cases in point; at the same time, personal sentiments and childhood memories inform other pieces, like Conkers and Letter (Unsent), for instance. The theme of life-choices and journeys taken is explored on various levels, bookending the album from the title-song opener (which depicts a rainy ascent of Coniston Old Man) through to the closer, Taxis (which chronicles the working musician’s “on-the-road” lifestyle) and continuing on Stones and Tonight. The lengthier and more upbeat, animated London then provides another kind of air of hope, while a different kind of journey, one through some of the seasons of the year, is taken by Conkers, the brief newgrass-styled instrumental sketch December and Hannah’s delicately tricky a cappella song January. Throughout the sequence, Hannah’s vocal work is as outstanding as her instrumental prowess (I could single out her expressive violin solo which forms a striking coda to London), while Phillip’s miraculously deft and intricate playing remains a constant marvel (especially on dobro, I thought). In all, there’s something really compelling about the music on Watershed, and while the album’s strived-for thematic continuity may at times prove enigmatic and slightly contradictory, this is nevertheless a most persuasive record that can do nothing but further enhance the duo’s very healthy reputation.

David Kidman
www.philliphenryandhannahmartin.co.uk



Cardboard Fox – CARDBOARD FOX (Own Label, no catalogue number)

Cardboard Fox is a Bath-based acoustic quartet comprising Charlotte and Laura Carrivick (aka The Carrivick Sisters), Joe Tozer and John Breese. It’s a dream combination of four musicians who’d known each other for some years but only managed to get together in 2013 when they were all finally able to be in the right place. The focus of their music is on original writing within a loosely bluegrass-folk instrumental setting, and on this debut release (why’s it taken them so long?) two of the songs are group compositions with one apiece by Charlotte and Joe. Within the fiddle/guitar/mandolin/bass complement, there’s much scope for instrumental showcasing, but it’s to their credit that Cardboard Fox refuse to be drawn into the trap of showing off and instead concentrate on melodious accompaniment, which is never a bad thing. Having said that, the instrumental work is all first-rate, and the sense of latent power in the playing is strong and convincing. The songs are a mixed bunch; I find the singly-penned items most satisfying, perhaps most of all Charlotte’s wistful, medium-paced Balloon, which concerns her misgivings about her lover; Joe’s contribution, Someone Else’s Shoes, provides the disc with a suitably breezy finale. I’m not quite so sold on the first two songs though, and I found my attention wandering a bit there. Overall, the promise of this ensemble doesn’t quite get the chance to be fulfilled on so brief an introductory selection of material. The musicians’ great competence and appealing delivery aren’t in question, and they have a keen grasp on the matter of arrangement; it’s just that their songs don’t yet reach the level of connection and memorability I might have expected.

David Kidman
www.cardboardfox.co.uk



Pokey LaFarge – SOMETHING IN THE WATER (Rounder 0888072369191)

Mr. LaFarge originally hails from Kentucky, where he spent his younger years out on the open road, becoming steeped in the music of the heroes and misfits of yesteryear – “the long-lost troubadours of country, the kings of swamp-drenched ragtime and the legendary bluesmen of the Cotton Kingdom”. Latterly he’s been based in St. Louis, where he’s been busy fine-tuning his own craft and producing an ingrained, natural lifestyle-informed hybrid of the above maverick inspirations that he’s made his own well outwith any potential charges of bandwagon-jumping retro. His records with the Southern City Three were satisfyingly quirky, unassumingly dynamic productions that have delighted with their fresh, dapper and ever-so-slightly cheeky demeanour and slightly crazy but genuinely open-hearted good-time humour, and if anything this latest offering eclipses even 2010’s Riverboat Soul in the delectability stakes. This is not only due to Pokey’s increasingly accomplished songwriting and ever-confident delivery, but largely I suspect also due to the fuller complement of backing musicians (imports from Midwest bands the Fat Babies, the Modern Sounds and the Western Elstons) that are used cleverly and yet sparingly to flesh the songs out and enhance their rootsy character. There’s sharp-suited brass and clattery percussion, swinging and twanging guitars, breezy banjos, honkin’ harmonica – everything in its authentic and rightful place yet effortlessly escaping pastiche. There’s insouciant swing (Wanna Be Your Man), tribal jazz (Underground), a high-octane rockabilly workout (Actin’ A Fool), Hot Club hula (Bad Girl), dreamy barroom rumination (Cairo, Illinois), even a slice of Eric-Bibb-style bluesy acoustic-troubadour (Far Away), set against curios like the deftly “saxy” The Spark and the oh-so-slightl- creepy title song, whereas the whole caboodle finishes up on a high with the foot-tapping jass-band swagger of Knockin’ The Dust Off The Rust Belt Tonight. Pokey’s self-penned material is topped up with a brace of covers – an affectionate treatment of the Bullock/Whiting standard When Did You Leave Heaven? (originally popularised by Big Bill Broonzy) and a gleeful revisit of the jumpin’ hot Tampa Red classic All Night Long. And Pokey’s voice is a miracle of its kind, assured yet (when required) emotionally vulnerable, capable of shifting from playful to poignant within a whisker, and making good use of expressive vibrato without overdoing it or indulging in self-parody. Magnificent stuff!

David Kidman
www.pokeylafarge.net


Tom Rush – TOM RUSH/TAKE A LITTLE WALK WITH ME BGO Records BGOCD.1192)

Tom Rush was part of the second-wave of American folk guitarists/singer-songwriters who flourished during the mid-60s. Before gaining a reputation as a songwriter, though, he started out peddling credible covers of bluesy-folk material, as his first album for Elektra demonstrates. This unpretentiously eponymous disc was released in 1965, and is reissued here as part of a two-disc set with its followup, 1966’s Take A Little Walk With Me. But the 1965 LP wasn’t actually Tom’s debut on record – that honour fell to the privately-pressed 1962 live album, which itself was followed by a pair of albums of folk-blues standards made for Prestige in 1963. The 1965 offering continued on from the Prestige LPs in presenting a further batch of folk-blues standards that interspersed traditional folksongs with blues classics, two apposite Guthrie pieces and even a Leiber/Stoller number (When She Wants Good Lovin’) that betrayed the natural rock’n’roll sensibility that Tom brought to his interpretations and performances. Star track, however, was the 8½-minute bottleneck-masterclass rendition of Bukka White’s trainsong Panama Limited – seriously stunning, and a benchmark for future guitarists. Trivia fans will note that Tom also benefits on this album from contributions from John Sebastian, Rambling Jack Elliott, Felix Pappalardi, Bill Lee and Daddy Bones. It’s a very respectable set, still sounding reasonable today, and showcases the warm expressiveness of Tom’s singing in the context of his quite distinctively accomplished (yet refreshingly unflashy) guitar work, each item (whatever the idiom) being dispatched with an unassuming mix of integrity and confidence. Tom’s original learnèd liner notes are reproduced for this reissue, and valuable they are too, providing further evidence of his capacity for knowledge and eagerness to discover and share music and songs.

Take A Little Walk With Me was an exciting development, albeit a transitional album in more ways than one, being divided on its original vinyl format into an electric side and an acoustic side. The former featured backing from Dylan sidemen including Al Kooper, and its songs included On The Road Again, which was Tom’s first recorded original composition, and items by Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. The second side contained just five tracks; these included two Eric Von Schmidt covers (Joshua Gone Barbados and Turn Your Money Green) alongside an early version of Sleepy John Estes’ Statesboro’ Blues (pre-dating later and more famous ones by Taj Mahal et al.) and some more traditional pieces. Once again, Bruce Langhorne joined Tom, along with Bill Lee back on string bass. Tom was now even more rapidly proving his talent for sourcing and/or discovering interesting new material, which was to come to fruition big-time on his next album, 1968’s classic The Circle Game, on which his reputation as a songwriter too was to leap forward with No Regrets; that’s another story… But for now, this pair of reissued Tom Rush albums are done proud by BGO, with full original notes and a fresh and insightful new booklet essay.

www.tomrush.com

David Kidman

Willy Porter – The Green Note, Tuesday 6th October 2015

There’s a question Elizabeth Gilbert asks in her new book, which attempts to do away with the long held myth that you have to suffer and be in constant struggle to create art. Gilbert’s question is simply, “Why would your creativity not love you?”

Last night at the Green Note I saw that myth shatter into a million pieces in the form of singer-songwriter and guitar virtuoso Willy Porter. Porter was touring the UK in support of his new album ‘Human Kindness’. During the hour and half, there was no question as to whether Porter’s music loved him as much he loved making it. The relationship between the man, his guitar and his music was one of love, and true to all music, one of fun.

Willy Porter resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with his wife and children. With his soft and heartwarming voice, soulful lyricism and breathtaking guitar playing, Porter blurs the lines between blues, soul and roots music.

Boston born rock siren, Anna Coogan opened the show. Just a voice and an electric guitar, Anna captivated the crowd, particularly with a song trying to make sense of the tragic bombings in Boston.

Willy opened with ‘Elouise’, a song off his new album; a love letter to his wife. The song was beautifully crafted, and though I had heard about Porter’s reputation for being an out of this world guitar player, nothing could have prepared for seeing the man work his magic in the flesh. There isn’t a note that man can’t hit!

Apart from being a talented musician and singer, Willy is a wry storyteller and an incredibly funny guy. There were moments between songs when he had the audience in stitches. One of these, was the lead up to the song ‘Paper Airplanes’ which has now become a favourite of mine, much in part because of the accompanying story Willy told, involving an open window, a woman in a hair towel and a man with a guitar trying to woo said woman with his guitar playing.

“I want to erase all doubt/ Want to stand naked before the sun/ I want to lay down beside you.”

Near the latter end of the set, Willy asked if it would be okay if we joined him on writing a song there and then. He asked us to call out topics, which ranged from Corgis to tube strikes to odd alcoholic beverages. The result was a song like no other; a sweetly crafted love song albeit with slightly odd lyrics, set to wonderful music.

The set closed with the title track ‘Human Kindness’, written from a personal experience of being pulled from harms way and knowing that all human beings are inherently good and kind. When it all comes down to it, it’s hardwired in all us to help one another. The song is a beautiful and reaffirming message, which Willy sings with such conviction, softening the hearts of those cynics among us.

“Human kindness is alive and well/ Where will find it, no one can tell/ Wear it for shelter surround yourself /Human kindness is alive and well.”

Emily Algar


Wes Finch – AWENA (Unity Roots Productions GB 9R7 15 00001-00010)

Wes’s previous album Mayflower, his second, was (as I recall) a not entirely convincing stab at creating an English brand of Americana-styled songwriting – itself a contradiction in terms, I know. But its followup, Awena – titled after his mother’s Welsh name (which means “muse” or “inspiration”) – is an altogether more distinctive and interesting proposition, with its own quirky and original sound-world conjured by producer Gerry Diver, with whom the whole album is a true artistic collaboration. A recurring element of Wes’s writing is its literate quality, and he has a clear love of literature and the English countryside, these strands coming together in English poetry of the ilk of Edward Thomas; the delicately poignant Widow Thomas concerns Edward’s wife visiting dying fellow-poet Ivor Gurney. Traditional English customs are also invoked, on the curiously dark Handfast, while classic balladry comes to the fore (the common Death & The Lady motif) on Man Of Bones, carried onward into album closer Riverbed. Other songs are inspired by Wes’s reading over the past year or so (Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield on Red Coat, Alan Warner’s The Man Who Walks on Jackie’s Stone). And as I’ve already hinted, Gerry Diver’s innovative musical settings are both eerie and uniquely atmospheric, with telling details round every twist and turn of Wes’s melodies. The issue of folk sub-genre should not concern the listener in music of such bewitching power, although it may still take a while to penetrate the surface consciousness. The penultimate track’s a queasy, jittery reworking of Love Me Tender, by the way – a distinctly disturbing listening experience that’s more like a seismic catharsis: be warned! I get the feeling that Awena will come to be regarded as quite an important record when folks have had the chance to get to know it – so get in the queue now…!

www.wesfinch.co.uk

David Kidman


Sadie Jemmett – LONDON LOVE SONGS (Own Label, no catalogue number)

I dunno why, but I kind of expected greater things from this young lady and her debut CD. She was given a dream opportunity with a few hours of studio time in Studio 2 at Abbey Road, to record some of her own songs in the company of “some exceptionally talented and generous friends” (these being Joseph Carey, Lawrie Wright, Anthony Wimshurst, Matt Wilson, Emma Darlow, Tony Myers and Russell Joslin). The album essentially started life as a collection of songs about Sadie’s life as a working mother playing and living in London, and yes it contains some good music along the way, notably Five Things (probably my favourite track), Adventures In Sobriety (a combination of biog of an alcoholic friend and Kerouac-inspired reflections), Come Down (which comments on drugs and the dealers) and the CD’s closer Entirely. And the confessional On My Mind would be rather appealing were its melody not so obviously borrowed wholesale from Jackson C. Frank’s Blues Run The Game. But it’s all a little too personal and – dare I say it – London-life-obsessed and thus in the end quite depressing. Sadie demonstrates commitment and staying-power, but she’s too earnest overall and some of her thoughts are just too ordinary to grab one’s interest even in passing. A passable cover of the CS&N hit Teach Your Children, which first appeared on the tribute album Music Is Love, is snuck in two-thirds of the way through the disc, but it doesn’t quite fit here. I can’t quibble with the accessible quality of the instrumental backings either, but in truth not much seems to happen and surprisingly little of the disc sticks in the mind to warrant a repeated play when in truth there’s so much more distinctive singer-songwriter music around.

www.sadiejemmett.com

David Kidman


TRADarrr – CAUTIONARY TALES (Hedge Of Sound HOS02)

Nice idea, shame about the typography! Well, you might also think that TRADarrr is just a gang of modern-day folk-rock pirates – but that would infer I’m being merely facetious. Let’s have none of that, for this new outfit is to be taken seriously. To all intents and purposes, TRADarrr is a “folk-flavoured big-band project” that’s the brainchild of singer-guitarist P.J. Wright and drummer/multi-instrumentalist Mark Stevens. Hence one can see that TRADarrr, although ostensibly marketed as a brand new band, has in effect been formed out of the remains of the mighty Little Johnny England (who back in 2009 were proudly celebrating their tenth anniversary and looking ahead to the twentieth!). Another of the LJE stalwarts, fiddle/mandolin player Guy Fletcher, has also now come on board the good ship TRADarrr, and this new band’s core lineup is completed by Gregg Cave (guitars) and Marion Fleetwood (fiddle/viola/cello/guitar). What is claimed to set TRADarrr apart from other bands of the loosely folk-rock ilk is that they’re consciously adopting the philosophy and practice of bringing in additional appropriate musicians on a track-by-track basis. Hence, on TRADarrr’s debut CD, we encounter “esteemed guests” in the shape of Jerry Donaghue, Pete Scrowther, Marcus Parkinson, the “Moulton Melodeon Mafia” of Simon Care, Gareth Turner and Kristaps Fisher, and no fewer than three present-day-Fairporters (Messrs. Pegg, Leslie and Sanders). Further internal variety in the compass of Cautionary Tales comes from the fact that the lead-vocal role is shared around. Gregg’s Mad Dog (his setting of Oliver Goldsmith’s poem) and Adieu are both unquestionably album standouts, vying for top position with Marion’s utterly beautiful, nay truly exceptional rendition of My Lagan Love, while Chris Leslie is allocated Whitsun Dance and makes a lovely job of it too, with the aid of a strong, almost Home-Service/Albion-Country-Band arrangement that incorporates brass (cornet) and string (cello) textures behind the backbeat. Simple Ploughboy’s another fine cut, the recounting of its tale shared between Gregg and Marion to a driving Band/Americana-style setting with some decidedly Fotheringay-esque electric guitar from Jerry and tasty organ and mandolin fills. The album finale is an exciting, thrusting collation of Nottamun Town and Pretty Polly, with plenty of shared vocal activity; its only drawback is that unfortunately it fades before its time. Curiously, the least convincing of the vocal contributions to my mind comes from Pete’s lead on Derwentwater’s Farewell, where he sounds mannered, even strained, and lacks gravitas; he’s in altogether sturdier voice on Glenlogie, with a stonking full-on electric-guitar-and-fiddle backdrop as a foil. There are just three instrumental tracks; these adopt a suitably bouncy stance, from the galumphing trad-folkrock-morris-on japery of Princess Royal and Upton Stick Dance to the band’s stall-setter (the first movement of Vaughan Williams’ English Folk Song Suite) which features Ric’s joyous dancing fiddle counterpoint and makes deliciously unexpected passing excursions into mariachi, twang and reggae. So all told, Cautionary Tales is a damned fine debut offering from TRADarrr: a folk-rock album with ears both on the glorious past and the gloriously contemporary, a CD which in spite of its deployment of numerous guest musos nevertheless sports a distinctive band identity.

tradarrr.com

David Kidman


The Ashley Hutchings Big Beat Combo – TWANGIN’ ’N’ A-TRADDIN’ REVISITED (Talking Elephant TECD 282)

In one of his busiest years yet release-wise (fittingly so, since he reached the 70th birthday milestone back in January), the indefatigable Mr. Hutchings here showcases his nostalgia strand with a revamped re-release of the 1994 CD where he (together with a bunch of British folk-rockers steeped in late-50s/early-60s rock instrumentals) celebrated their heritage, at the same time creating an unholy but fun marriage of that repertoire with folk-dance tunery. For this special anniversary reissue, scattered amidst the original album’s dozen tracks we find three extra-glistening pearls: rather fetching newly-recorded items that present a missing piece of the period-jigsaw, recent Hutchings-joint-collaborative compositions evoking the experiences of teenagers in those key years, notably the effect the music had on their minds and romances. Female vocal trio The Velveteens imparts just the right kind of girl-group back-street-teen glamour to the proceedings on The Boy With The Red Guitar (ooh! aah!) and the folky-time-travelling (As I) Walked Out One Morning, while Gillie Nicholls proves a star turn on the puppy-love-obsessed Welcome To The World. Of course, the meat of the album still lies in the instrumentals, which pay affectionate, authentic and faithful homage to the soundtrack of our tender youth… in the shadows (sic) of Hank Marvin (FBI and Riff Raff), Duane Eddy (a rebel-rousing, twangsome medley), Boots Randolph (Spinnin’ Jenny and Clackety Melodeon), Booker T (Spyder Walk), Eddie Cochran (the strict-tempo Horsin’ Around), The Ventures (Walk Don’t Run), and Joe Meek (his Telstar recast as a doowop-style slowie), while also engaging in friendly battle with sundry dance crazes such as the Twist and Hand Jive – all from today’s perspective of musicianly savvy, accomplishment and informed nostalgia; this is folk-rockery inspired by both traditions, where their influences cut both ways. The meeting between the twain has rarely been more persuasively done, and Mr Hutchings has assembled just the right “bunch” of crazy folkies and folk-rockers for the job: Messrs Care, Beer, Nicol, Allcock and Thompson for starters, with Geoff Driscoll, Colin Green, Colin Pryce-Jones, and drummers Trevor Foster and Clem Cattini (yes, he of the original Tornados!). (Oh, and here’s a bonus question for folk-nerds: is this the only recorded instance of RT playing the penny whistle?!). On the three new tracks, Hutchings is joined by Guy Fletcher, Ken Nicol, Gerry McNeice, Blair Dunlop, Joe Broughton and Neil Marshall. “Twangy Rock meets Foot-tapping Folk” it assuredly is, and you’ll go number four on this one I bet! For this particular trip down memory lane is one of Mr. Hutchings’ most inspired revival-style projects, and long overdue for reappraisal – the man’s a genius!

David Kidman


Jinski – LIVE LONG (EP) (Lucky Smile Records)

The Newcastle-based duo of songwriter Stephen Wegrzynski and musician Dave Kennedy have followed up their fine 2012 album Down Here with a special release compiled for Record Store Day, thus issued on 10” vinyl format. The duo’s music, while resolutely contemporary, nevertheless contains distinct elements of approved Americana and folk traditions, making for an attractive and accessible blend of influences within a well-crafted framework. Here, just one track (the comparatively lavishly scored Goodbye Lucky Guy) is culled from the duo’s debut CD Hurry Home, and two are taken from Down Here. The remaining pair of tracks comprises brand new songs specially recorded for the EP, and are well up the high standard already set by Jinski: Never Gonna Work Again kinda recalls vintage Mark Knopfler/Dire Straits, while Top Of The Tree has a nice line in gentle reflection. Both feature some seriously tasteful (and tasty) supporting playing from the likes of Neil Harland, Jim Hornsby and Pete Challoner. These new songs also continue the Jinski tradition of being immediately accessible yet also capable of revealing further subtleties on closer acquaintance – that’s not an easy trick to pull off, but Jinski seem to manage it so effortlessly. Another release for the discerning listener. Live long and prosper!

www.jinski.com David Kidman


The Demon Barbers – DISCO AT THE TAVERN (Demon Barbers DBS006)

Damien Barber has come a long way in two decades, from his beginning as a solo singer and concertina player par excellence through to the brilliant leadership of an expansive ensemble to realise his percipient vision of the place of folk music in the wider cultural context of our age. The past 15 years have seen Damien developing, by way of the constantly-morphing Demon Barbers ensemble, his dynamic and tremendously invigorating fusion of dance and music, in a triumphant succession of no-holds-barred Roadshows and live presentations, extravaganzas in every sense of the word, all serious eye-openers that have been (justly) wildly acclaimed. Disco At The Tavern is the CD counterpart to the latest show, Demon Barbers XL, which features dancers who’d appeared on its predecessor The Lock-In (if you haven’t seen it, then get the DVD pronto!). By any conventional rules, an audio distillation of a cracking live experience shouldn’t work, or else be of only limited success since it necessarily lacks the elements of visual spectacle and visceral immediacy. Sure, the latter are irreplaceable even with the finest of audio (or DVD) replication, but trust me, Disco At The Tavern has got to be the closest you’ll get to that live gig; it’s a miracle of modern engineering in that it really does get everything possible into the mix, and you can hear every element. Credit for this can be firmly laid at the door of Award-winning producers Donal Hodgson and Kipper (best known for their work with Sting). But none of that high degree of faithful achievement would’ve been possible without the intense commitment and musicianship of Damien and his troupe, to whom the production team has so acutely responded. Clarity of expression and balance are paramount, and yet the super-abundance of controlled hyper-energy is present in every note, gesture, rhythm and aural movement. The spirit of dance – whether folk, hip-hop or rapper – informs all in a genuinely revolutionary – and revelatory – whole, an entirely natural-sounding integration of these modes of expression, dance and song, traditions ancient and modern, belonging together and interlocking as though always meant to be so. The clincher, of course, is that the ensemble knows its business; every individual member’s a star, but one could single out the mighty core driving force of Damien himself and fiddle ace Bryony Griffith, who with boxer Will Hampson and a super-tight rhythm section, knit everything together like crazy. Incredibly energetic and punchy, they have the measure of every idiom, while the arrangements are super-inventive, exhilarating and spine-tinglingly relevant. Exciting, living and breathing rhythms that absorb and transform folk-dance, morris, ska, reggae, hip-hop, drum’n’bass, bringing alive folk and more recently-penned song standards in a portmanteau language that thoroughly convinces. Album standouts just have to include the magisterially doomy beat-driven Three Ravens, the clap-happy Bitter Withy, the skittery skank groove of Rambling Rover, Bryony’s take on the Sir Lionel ballad, the pool-disco rave of Swimming Song, a Wilsonically-augmented sally-forth through Cyril’s (Free And Easy) lament, and a scratchy Wild Goose Shanty. Perhaps the CD’s only misfire – albeit an honourable one – is its finale, a seven-minute title-track instrumental workout that’s all too obviously a soundtrack for everything vastly exciting that’s going on on-stage, and equally obviously loses something in its translation to silver disc (however well-recorded). But take it from me, Disco At The Tavern is still utterly unmissable.

www.thedemonbarbers.co.uk

David Kidman


Melanie – CANDLES IN THE RAIN (Talking Elephant TECD277)

It’s surprising how much Melanie Safka’s music seeped into and then out of my consciousness around the very early 1970s, never making any inroads into my record collection and yet providing some of the era’s defining musical memories – not least that of her captivating performance on the first day of Woodstock (in a rainstorm). Compared to other female singer-songwriters of the time, Melanie’s performing style was idiosyncratic to say the least, and her amazing, passionate and versatile singing voice was (and perhaps still is) an acquired taste, while her albums contained an infuriating mix of inspired and embarrassing. Candles In The Rain, Melanie’s third album release, dates from 1970, and gives us a prime example of the latter imbalance, with the brilliant, iconic cover of Ruby Tuesday, James Taylor’s Carolina In My Mind and the lovely title song thrown into sharp relief by the almost unlistenable kiddie-nonsense of Alexander Beetle and the chansonesque (“Piaf-take”?) What Have They Done To My Song, Ma?… But I’d not remembered ever experiencing the strange and eccentric delights of The Good Guys, Citiest People and (especially) Lovin’ Baby Girl and Leftover Wine, so I welcome hearing them as for the first time on this expanded Talking Elephant reissue. Expanded by means of the rather puzzling addition of two bonus tracks culled from her 1975 album Sunset And Other Beginnings: Almost Like Being In Love and a bouncy, tripping take on Lindisfarne’s Meet Me On The Corner (here retitled Dream Seller). Whatever, though, I’m glad to finally be able to add an original Melanie album to my collection, and I’d like to see more of her albums reissued by Talking Elephant in due course.

David Kidman


Sam Lee – THE FADE IN TIME (The Nest Collective TNCR003CD)

Sam’s debut album Ground Of Its Own both startled and invigorated the folk scene on its appearance three years ago, and its unusual choices from within the traditional song repertoire were ably complemented by his skill in bringing the inner pulse and passion of those songs to the forefront through an unashamedly open-minded and eclectic array of instrumentation. No wonder, then, that it was nominated for a Mercury Music Prize, gaining him much media attention. Sam continued to fearlessly explore his territory on last year’s stopgap EP More For To Rise, which acted as a sampler-taster for The Fade In Time. That notorious “difficult second album syndrome” clearly holds no terrors for Sam, whose intelligent inventiveness and capacity for exhaustive research knows no bounds. His source material once again largely draws from the repertoires of the traveller-singers, especially the late Stanley Robertson (under whom he served an apprenticeship, you’ll recall) – from whose singing Moorlough Maggie, Lovely Molly, and the disc’s jittery, animated opening salvo Jonny O’ The Brine, are all derived. Sam also transforms two songs from the singing of octogenarian gypsy singer Freda Black (Bonny Bunch Of Roses and Over Yonders Hill) and Lord Gregory, the latter prefaced by the voice of Scots singer Charlotte Higgins (Stanley’s distant cousin). The aura of the nomadic tradition is further enhanced here by the strong eastern-European flavour of much of the disc (and a sampled archive recording of a cantor singer runs a thread throughout Bonny Bunch Of Roses). On Moorlough Maggie, Sam’s glorious vocal ululations are swayed along by Francesca De-Berg’s cello, Fiona Curzon’s violin and a restrained three-piece brass section, with Jonah Brody’s koto rippling a Japanese flavour through the ensemble. On Lord Gregory, the cautiously brass-bedecked arrangement for the latter proves a masterful, sinister foil for Sam’s expert vocal delivery. Over Yonders Hill and the plaintive Phoenix Island receive an edgy backdrop echoing both jazz and African rhythms through the combination of ukulele and Steve Chadwick’s trumpet. Dramatic night visiting ballad Willie O (which Sam learned from Sheila Stewart) takes an excitingly trippy meander with ghostly flutes, in contrast to the dreamy The Moon Shone On My Bed Last Night (learned from Stanley’s aunt, Jeannie Robertson) which is enhanced by its sparsely-scored backing (cello, ukulele, violin, cornet and soft percussion), while Airdog’s chamber-folk setting continues in that poignant vein. The closing pair of tracks involves an even more restricted palette: Lovely Molly brings in The Roundhouse Choir to provide a soothingly harmonised a cappella choral cushion that invokes a gentle gospel hymn, while all Sam needs for accompaniment on The Moss House is Arthur Jeffes (of Penguin Café)’s curiously reverberant softly-pedalled piano dynamics – the latter’s standout reading leaves a long-lingering impression. For all his modernist innovations, Sam remains devoted to the tradition, for which reason alone his interpretive decisions demand the listener’s respect. Sometimes the slightly thorny settings may take a while to penetrate beyond a certain first-impression quirkiness, but the challenge proves well worth your engagement.

www.samleesong.co.uk

David Kidman


Mister Keith "Record of Wrongs"
Umbowler Records UMBMKCD001 itun.es/gb/zuk47

After having a successful 28 year career as a songwriter and session musician, Mister Keith has taken to creating an intense and beautiful journey himself with his own debut album "Record of Wrongs".
It's hard to describe his music, or journey. The strings follow a celtic story with intense waves of violin and cello which is completely juxtaposed by the ballad-like tale coming from the vocal and piano accompaniment.
His lyrics show the weakness and strength of a person's heart whilst describing the workings of the soul so visually that it brings you back to those philosophical questions that have plagued us for millennia.
"When there is no sign of life in your eyes,
A gentleman can decide to be Kind,
Maybe it's wrong for me to call time,
Because our love is strong,
So we carry on,
Because our love is strong."

These lyrics ring true to so many of us today. The battle of knowing what is right in a relationship and doing what will ultimately make everyone happy. With simple words, Mister Keith evokes an emotion that we can all relate to. He doesn't need to be completely metaphorical, because we can already create a bond between his lyrics and our own lives.

The whole piece and portrayal by Mister Keith creates an incredibly vivid victorian feel whilst retaining quite modern crooning vocals. It's hard to place what this musician does within a genre because the range of techniques and song-writing traits are so vast that I think we may simply have to leave it as a moment in time where someone did something different with the same tools we've known for a long time. It's like the past meeting the present in a calm storm, "Record of Wrongs" is a strong work that is incredibly versatile using a wide range of emotions and styles.

Joanne Rowe


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Kath Reade – LET YOUR HEART SING (Red Sands Records RSCD005)

One of the north-country’s favourite singer-songwriters, Kath has been peddling her lovely songs over the course of at least four CDs and an even earlier cassette (and more years than she’d probably like to be reminded of!). Whatever the performing or writing style she’s adopted, though, she’s retained at the core her strong and loyal social conscience, her love of humanity and her deep-rooted belief in the power of music as a healing influence and a key to human communication. These themes are without exception communicated with a profound sincerity that wins the listener over immediately, inspiring and uplifting without a trace of happy-clappy or the intrusive ramming-home of beliefs that often comes with holding and evangelising such deep convictions. Naturally, Kath takes her personal philosophy seriously, but she’s also blessed with a caring perceptiveness, a totally genuine desire to help folks through life with her own special brand of music therapy. Her generous sense of humour is born of a real understanding of human foibles and ambitions (check out the canny Life Is Like A Shakespeare Play). Kath’s singing voice, soft and caressing, earthy and passionate yet with an easy grasp of melody, is sufficiently flexible to communicate a range of emotions without undue exaggeration, always at the service of the lyrics, and she’s fully comfortable with her vocal abilities, whatever the idiom – folk troubadour, bluesy roots or even lounge-jazz (the closing track’s a fancy-free revamped revisit of Kath’s much-requested 2005 song Friendship Matters The Most, which features some brilliant piano work from Kath’s son Shaun). As with Kath’s previous CD Devotion To Song, each and every song on this new album has its own special character, and its themes embrace ancestral memory and ritual (Singing As One), and assorted aspects of the progress of love (So Strange and An Ordinary Man). The touching Dozen Red Carnations (now granted a swift reprise from its 2013 première recording) arises out of an affectionately observed Summer-Isles-set portrait of a couple’s simple devotion, whereas the deceptively hard-driven opening track Flash Is In A Punk Band turns out to be a further hearty endorsement of the “music is the power of life” credo. The latter boasts the album’s chunkiest musical arrangement (including some hair-raising, spiritful electric fiddle from Ian Fairbairn and a rocking rhythm section), but Kath’s doubly fortunate to have secured the services of the intensely talented Rob Van Sante who plays a multitude of instruments and produces the whole album (his regular musical partner Alan Reid also contributes). The listener emerges from this album gently energised and distinctly uplifted. (Just one point though – lyrics and sleeve notes are listed as being available from Kath’s website, but I’ve not managed to find those sleeve notes there yet!).

David Kidman


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Steve Pledger – STRIKING MATCHES IN THE WIND (Story Records STREC1657)

Steve’s a singer-songwriter from Cambridgeshire (St. Neots) whose name was new to me, but the very circumstance of his CD appearing on the same label as Ange Hardy would definitely have alerted me notwithstanding receiving it unsolicited for review here. Steve’s latest (second) release is a refreshingly stripped-down effort (just his voice and delicately fingerpicked guitar, with occasional double bass, fiddle, accordion or harmonica) that makes a real virtue of telling understatement in every respect, whereas the songs themselves – all twelve being Steve’s own compositions – deftly and unobtrusively engage the emotions without requiring any degree of overstatement. One album highlight is Friends And Fathers, an almost unbearably poignant reflection, partly a reminiscence of Steve’s parents, couched in the form of a fragile yet sincere effort to understand the nature of their relationship and the circumstances in which his father left the family home, and examining “the consequences of the global upon the personal”. And the painful, unwavering honesty of the more introspective songs like Scared Inside and Loving Condescension speaks volumes by virtue of their pared-down and economic settings, and there’s sufficient emotional charge in Steve’s intense, often quite vulnerable singing voice and the very precision of his lyrics, to override any possible accusation of understatement for mere effect, for such is his understanding of the craft of songwriting that he knows exactly where to stop when things might get out of hand, rowdy or rebellious. For instance, Steve’s take on the approved folk mode comes with “rabble” barroom chorus and may even involve your own willing participation – This Land Is Pound-Land, a kinda Woody-Guthrie-meets-Pete Morton-meets-Robb-Johnson number maybe but no worse for that, and its critical view of the nation’s obsession with “value” at any cost is suitably right-on. Back to the Ange Hardy connection, I learn that Steve was touring with Ange only last autumn, and their artistic collaboration is celebrated and consummated here on arguably this album’s standout track There We Are, a tender and intimate a cappella duet that voices the parting words of two people who’ve accepted that they’ve arrived at the end of their relationship. I read somewhere that Steve’s here-well-proven skill as a songwriter might well be likened to the activity outlined in the album’s title – well perhaps that was its intention, but either way it’s a good analogy. In all respects, though, this CD is quite literally very “striking”, and well worth seeking out if you get the chance; I’ll definitely be keeping it on my shelves.

David Kidman


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Merry Hell – THE GHOST IN OUR HOUSE & OTHER STORIES (Mrs Casey Records MCRCD 5102)

Last autumn this Wigan-based band released a taster-EP for album number three, which turns out to be a magnificent successor to its predecessors on every count. The EP (reviewed here earlier this year) included a pair of new tracks which are very much typical of the full offering: the salutary message of the near-title-song and the bouncier The Baker’s Daughter. For those who didn’t clock the earlier reviews, Merry Hell arose out of the remnants of formidably talented yet underrated 90s folk-punk outfit The Tansads following their 2010 reunion concerts; they quickly developed and established their own identity, and with each successive album have honed their already impressive and immensely stylish brand of folk-rockery into a fine art. This band really has got everything: driving, arresting and catchy songs that don’t shortchange on quality or content, unstintingly excellent musicianship, and a natural flair for arrangement. Such is the songwriting craft on display once again that none of the 15 tracks outstay their welcome, and the disc positively flies by in an unstoppable parade of top-notch self-penned material. Once again, it’s hard to believe that these guys can still come up with so many fresh and irresistibly infectious new melodies that have timeless appeal and sound absolutely classic, wedded to lyrics that actually have something to say, whether that’s a canny social or political commentary or an honest expression of personal yet universal themes of love, loss or regret in the context of contemporary life.
Think the glorious anthemic power of Oysterband or vintage Levellers, the bright goodtime vibes of Lindisfarne, Bushburys or Durbervilles, all taken with a keen reflective angle, conveyed with forceful passion and laced with some especially attractively coordinated vocal interplay. Either way, the effect is both intensely uplifting and seriously thought-provoking – and that’s not an easy trick to pull off!… Since the Head Full Of Magic, Shoes Full Of Rain album, Merry Hell has changed bass players (the new recruit being Nick Davies), and also expanded to a mighty eight-piece, with the addition of virtuoso fiddle player Neil McCartney who adds a vital new colour to an already rich and well-balanced (but never overcooked) band sound that makes a virtue of individual players’ inventiveness while maintaining its solid-state drive through the bass-and-drums bedrock. Inspiring togetherness and community through the telling (and not tired-feeling) exploration of familiar themes that are easy to relate to, album highlights come at the listener thick and fast during the disc’s commendably well-stocked 54 minutes. Notably the compelling positive nostalgia of Rage Like Thunder; the majestic pounding power-romancer Reason To Be; and the admirably non–preachy The Old Soldier, whose “violence breeds violence… peace begets peace” message chimes so aptly with the theme of last year’s Armistice Pals project, with which some Merry Hell folk were involved. Leave A Light On, sensitively sung by Andrew Kettle, deals poignantly with the pain of separation and features a beautiful, intricately moulded guitar cameo from Gordon Giltrap, and the CD closes with the quintessentially optimistic anthem-finale No Place Like Tomorrow. Even deceptively simple statements like No Money can still pack quite a punch despite their what may appear blindingly obvious sentiments, while other songs give more of a double edge to their defiant agitation – Summer Is A-Comin’ In, for instance. Compositional credits are well distributed between the band’s four distinctive songwriters – here, six tracks by the band’s outstanding, charismatic joint-lead-vocalist Virginia Kettle, then three apiece by guitar/banjo player John Kettle and mandolinist Bob Kettle, with the remaining two songs jointly penned: two by Bob with keyboard player Lee Goulding and one by John and Virginia. Finally, the CD’s overall presentation and artwork is well up to the high professional standard set by the earlier Merry Hell releases, and the enclosed booklet includes full lyrics and credits. If your taste is for accessible, dependable, seriously high-quality folk-rock with both a good-time fun element and a deeper level of insightful substance in its lyric content through timely relevance, then Merry Hell will surely be right up your street, I guarantee.

David Kidman


Merry Hell – THE GHOST (EP) (Mrs Casey Records)

This EP appeared at the end of last autumn, and was initially handed out by the band themselves, at gigs on their short pre-Christmas “acoustic” tour, as a gift to their growing army of fans. The disc also cannily provided a taster for the band’s then-forthcoming new album The Ghost In Our House & Other Stories (finally set for release at the end of this month). And what a taster! Its first couple of tracks are taken straight from the album itself: opening with its “nearly-title” song, we can hear that Merry Hell still mean business, with a thought-provoking, if salutary lyric set to a forceful yet gently thumping arrangement and a twisting, twining earworm of a melody. Classic stuff from the pen of the band’s ace songwriter and vocalist Virginia Kettle (as indeed are all four of the tracks on this EP). The second track, The Baker’s Daughter, is a typically bouncy folk-rocker but with a special care in the intelligent arrangement that evidences the band’s sheer craftsmanship. Fine though the album-taster cuts are, however, it’s the third track, Nobody Knows Me Like You, that’s the pearl here IMHO. A reflective, achingly beautiful ballad with real understated power and a sensitive arrangement and (again) a melody to die for. This track is exclusive to the EP, and described as “newly recorded by the band”. Yet its lyric chimes in so well with the album’s central theme (that ghosts can come in many forms) that I was a bit surprised to discover it’s absent from the tracklist for the new album. The EP’s entirely fitting finale is a recent live recording of the well-established-firm-favourite warmth-of-friendship-anthem Rosanna’s Song, with Andrew Kettle on brilliant, lyrical vocal form in duet with Virginia and the Clitheroe crowd clearly well pleased.

Happy to report that the EP’s still available from the band’s website – so go invest before supplies run out!

And then go on to get the full album later this month; you won’t regret it!

David Kidman


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Caitríona O’Leary & Dúlra – SUANTRAÍ (SLEEPSONGS) (Heresy)

Caitríona is a charismatic and well-regarded sean-nós singer, and yet she’s probably better known (at least on the recording front) for her parallel career in early-music ensembles Sequentia, eX, Joglaresa and The Harp Consort. In the sean-nós field, however, she’s been busily exploring the three basic strands of traditional song in Irish mythology, via a CD-trilogy which has been gradually appearing in instalments over the past dozen or so years. Goltraí (laments) appeared in 2001, Geantraí (songs of joy and happiness) in 2012, and now, finally, the set is completed with Suantraí (ancient Irish lullabies and songs on the theme of sleep). The folk music scene has released a number of albums of lullabies and suchlike of late (notably that by Jackie Oates), but the compass of Suantraí is both narrower and wider than this apparent competition, certainly entirely different in repertoire terms, and the disc enjoys a unique and haunting ambience that both fulfils the promise and consolidates the approach of the earlier volumes of Caitríona’s trilogy.

I need to point out first that the folk enthusiast who is used to hearing sean-nós source singers, and especially from field recordings, may initially be unseated by the singular purity, evenness of tone and cultured, trained quality of Caitríona’s voice. Its intensity and passion are qualities of true beauty, but this means it inevitably lacks the rough edges and momentary imperfections of the untrained sean-nós singer. Personal preference will thus dictate to what extent one appreciates, and can cope with, Caitríona’s delivery. Laying that necessary qualification aside, then, I can now concentrate on celebrating the extremely high standard of this disc – which conforms to, and I’d say probably surpasses, that set by its two predecessors. It’s clear that the very nature of Caitríona’s delivery, specifically its chant-like purity – is much informed by her early-music work (and to some extent world music and contemporary classical), and this extends to her choice – and style – of accompanying instrumentation. Indeed, she founded the ensemble Dúlra herself, in order to bring audiences a new way to experience traditional Irish music. Dúlra consists of just four musicians (fiddle, flute/whistle, cello and bodhrán), who are augmented (or in some cases part-substituted) by other players (clarinets, bass viol/lirone and percussion) on some tracks. Even though Dúlra has within its ranks some of Ireland’s key traditional musicians, their music here takes on less the spirit of the session and more of that of conscious arrangement – and yet is none the worse for it, for the impact of the band blend is strong within its own pre-ordained context.

The carefully-researched repertoire that Caitríona presents on this disc is termed “a posie of old and new sleep songs”, and it ranges from gentle, everyday lullabies to soothe a restless baby (Seobá Mo Leanbh, Cuirfidh Mé Féin Mo Leanbh A Chodladh and Seoithín Mo Leanbh), a little dandling-song (Cosa Buidhe Árda) and a simple, lovely children’s song (Little Cuckoo) through to gem-like story-songs which may recount the responses of their protagonists to intervention from supernatural forces like fairies (A Bhean Úd Thíos… and Ar Mhullach An tSidhe) or even convey a doomed love affair through restless animal imagery (Codail Beagán). Many of these selections are rarely-heard and enterprisingly arranged, with these latest performing versions often having been compiled by Caitríona from various sources, but the degree of unity attained is persuasive. On only four of the selections does Caitríona perform a cappella (I’d have liked to hear more). And yet, perhaps the closest Caitríona comes to what might be termed a “traditionally decorated” sean-nós vocal delivery is on Codail Beagán and the song Rachaidh Sé, and that aspect is emphasised on the tracks which employ ancillary drones in the arrangement. Elsewhere, An Seóthó employs a backbeat that resembles passages in Britten’s Church Parables. On the final track, the aforementioned A Bhean Ud Thíos…, Caitríona even sings slivers of the verse in a gamelan scale, utilising a gamelan accompaniment (in place of the Dúlra grouping) which ingeniously invokes both the faery magic within the lullaby itself and a kind of unearthly “alternative reality”. It’s a pity that no fewer than four of the selections turn out to be purely instrumental renditions – beautifully performed and arranged though they may be, these prove no substitute for sung versions (I’m thinking particularly of Tá Mé ’mo Chodladh), especially in the light of Caitríona being the named focal point of the collection.

For Caitríona’s musical personality really does impart a special atmosphere to the disc: thrillingly intimate, intense and mesmeric – but never soporific (many of the tracks may be lullabies, but they won’t send you to sleep!). And the disc’s additional aura of high-class product is ideally complemented by its most lavish, elaborate and handsome packaging. The humble CD is encased within a sturdy digibook, which contains photographic images created to resemble Pre-Raphaelite paintings and staged to evoke the disc’s song lyrics; these are reproduced in their entirety (and with translations), together with Caitríona’s own detailed explanation of the sources of text and tune and her rationale for arrangement. So this release is quite literally a work of art, not just a beautifully sung, played and engineered audio CD.

David Kidman


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Various Artists – ALICE IN WONDERLAND AND OTHER RAINY DAY GIRLS: THE GREAT LOST SOUTHERN POPSIKE TRIP (Charly)

This is a part of the Charly Records 40th Anniversary series of releases, intended to consolidate the label’s position as a premier reissue label. There’ve been countless compilations of obscure 60s psych over the past two or three decades, and with each new release I wonder just how much more there is to unearth. Here comes a further two CDs’ worth of nuggets, but this time from an entirely unexpected geographical source: Tennessee, home of country and rockabilly and soul – Nashville and Memphis! Somehow, Sam Phillips’ Sun label (which had launched Elvis Presley on his career a decade earlier, of course) was continuing its pioneering stance and “we record anything – anywhere – anytime” ethos by contributing to the fashionable psychedelic scene. As were other local labels such as SSS Int’l, Amazon, Minaret and Honor Brigade.

There’s loads of rare and obscure delights on offer here. But getting the inevitable warning out first, for it comes with the territory: this set’s 40 tracks do contain a very small quota of the disposable, the weird and not necessarily wonderful buried among the gems. For gems there most certainly are, in abundance. Some of the finest are those studio moments captured where sound-worlds and genre types fruitfully collide, and in doing so transcend both pastiche and derivativeness. Like the Mony, Mony-style bubblegum thrust of the Jerms’ Green Door, the “matchstickable” wah-wah psych of Half A World Away’s Confusion, the borrowed Kinks riff driving Randy & The Radiants’ My Way Of Thinking, the Byrdsy jangle of The Tiffany System’s Wayward One. The “wayward” nature of invention over the period covered by this compilation (1965 to 1971) is encapsulated by the inclusion of both sides of Randy & The Rest’s 1967 single, the sunshine-pop of Dreamin’ and the cryptic, messy (and nigh unlistenable!) freakout sound collage The Vacuum. Some selections sound entirely “of their year”, while others are conspicuously “out of time” – but what matter? A number of acts get more than one bite at the cherry here – these include West Coast-inspired outfit The Berkeley Kites; Texas band The United Notions; and unpromisingly named covers band The Rugbys, whereas Florida combo H.Y. Sledge weigh in with ambitious seven-minute album track Canadian Exodus as well as the feisty R&B-inflected Finding It.

There’s some great discoveries here, on a typically well-packaged and annotated set that really rejuvenates the jaded collector’s palate for musical tripping.

David Kidman


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The Pretty Things – BOUQUETS FROM A CLOUDY SKY (Snapper)

Now here’s a band that deserves the “full-monty” box-set treatment, and their 50th anniversary seems as good an opportunity as any to get something decent out into the racks. And it’s a mighty product, containing all 11 studio albums (also including 42 bonus tracks therein), two CDs of rarities (demos, alternate versions, live cuts, sessions and outtakes), two DVDs, and sundry other artefacts including comprehensive 100-page band history, family tree, 10” acetate, posters and art print. Sadly, us humble reviewers have only been supplied with a 15-track “demo sample” promo disc, and left to slaver at the prospect of the tasty wares denied to us by their exclusion.

But this sample disc is cannily compiled to entice, and stands up reasonably well as an overview compilation in its own right. Not least because it sensibly covers all three of what might conveniently be termed the main musical phases of the band’s career (albeit not quite faithfully in the chronological sense, it must be admitted). Phase One found the band in hyper-raucous mode, with chart hits Rosalyn and Don’t Bring Me Down. These still sound great, and reinforce my view that any dismissal of the band as mere “Stones copycats” was so unfair. One could argue that the lads’ raw energy and wild rootsiness came across even stronger than the Stones on their own early LPs, notably so on the Pretties’ second album Get The Picture?, while a contemporaneous live track provides even more persuasive proof of the band’s overwhelming gritty power. Phase Two saw the band, like many of their contemporaries, making the transition almost overnight to moody psychedelia with the “difficult third album” Emotions (curiously, not represented on the demo sample disc), which led swiftly and naturally on to the progressive “underground” sound evidenced by the magnificent concept album S.F. Sorrow and the ambitious 45 Defecting Grey. The more laid-back, mellow soft-prog of the followup album Parachute marked another transition, and a live version of Alexander from the crossover period of 1969 neatly points the way forward to their 70s hard-rock classics like Silk Torpedo and Cross Talk. The arguably less musically interesting offerings of later years are still worth hearing though, and the rarities discs include a full-on hammering take on the Beatles’ Helter Skelter that shows the band still capable of rocking with the best just a couple of years ago.

Most key of all, perhaps, the Pretty Things have been more influential than has been widely credited or acknowledged: a fact of which I’m sure no-one purchasing this lavish commemorative box-set will be left in any doubt.

www.snappermusic.com

David Kidman


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Allison Moorer – DOWN TO BELIEVING (Proper PRPCD126)

This is Allison’s first album since 2010’s Crows, since the release of which she’s separated from Steve Earle and delved deep into her confessional psyche to produce undoubtedly her bravest and most personal record yet. Its tough, muscular musical soundscape, conjured by producer and collaborator Kenny Greenberg (with whom Allison previously worked on the acclaimed album The Hardest Part) is a driven one, and yet its confident but tender gestures reflect her country-tinged songwriting and enable her wonderful singing voice to bloom and blossom. And that even includes a spot of rockin’ on the bayou (standout rocker Mama Let The Wolf In), which complements the disc’s one cover, the Creedence hit Have You Ever Seen The Rain?, the latter here receiving a sensitive and apposite treatment that’s fully in context. Allison’s sure been dragged through the tragedies of life, the latest being her young son John Henry being formally diagnosed with autism. Little wonder, then, that Allison considers she’s lost her crystal ball and found a wrecking ball. And yet, against all the odds, she seems stronger for it, which is, as the new album’s waltzing title number posits, is all down to believing. The disc’s song cycle inhabits a central theme of relationships, which are depicted and examined with a forthright honesty that for the most part – at any rate lyric-wise – transcends sentimentality. This honesty embraces the absolute admission that Allison, like all of us, is still Gonna Get It Wrong at times. No argument there, for no benefit’s ever easily won, and credit to Allison for sharing that realisation in such immediate and accessible musical language.

www.allisonmoorer.com

David Kidman


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Green Diesel – WAYFARERS ALL (Talking Elephant TECD260)

Kent-based folk-rockers of a traditional-folk-rock bent, Green Diesel have been steadfastly ploughing the trusty furrow of that genre since their inception close on five years ago, but with sensitivity and freshness of approach complementing their choice of both instrumentation and material. The band expanded to a six-piece for the release of their debut full-length album Now Is The Time a couple of years back, and I was very impressed with that assured, clear-sighted and cleanly-recorded disc. These qualities are even more well-developed on this followup record, and if anything the band’s keen sense of instrumental balance – and interestingly, at times their use of restraint too – is even more noticeable. The mix of material is much as before, in that trad-arr makes up close on half of the menu, with sparkling, solidly-driven renditions of Let No Man Steal Your Thyme (with its attractive Trees vibe), May Song (the “branch” one, with its processional tune nicely rocked up to finish), and Mad Tom Of Bedlam (loosely in the time-honoured Nic Jones arrangement): all on first glance pay more than a nod to Steeleye (and OK, trhe Kipling/Bellamy staple Oak And Ash And Thorn gets its bounce from a Female Drummer syncopated riff), but Ellen Care’s singing has more of a cutting edge than Maddy Prior. Obscurely titled instrumental piece Minoorne Laabajalg cascades its various moods well, its reflective opening section building to a jazzier, almost flamenco rhythm. The proverbial “cuckoo in the nest” within the ranks of the above collection is the shanty Shiny-O, which sets up a deep skank groove before setting sail at a rate of knots and pulling the jig Drummond Castle alongside the vessel. The principal change between Wayfarers All and its predecessor lies with the non-traditional numbers, all but one (Matt Dear’s impassioned yet pensive A Fisherman, Once) coming from the pen of guitar/mandolin player Greg Ireland – and both inspired and innovative they are, recognisably following an approved folk-rock template in order to reinvent it. Particularly well-constructed examples are to be found in Drive The Cold Winter Away and the opener To Kill The King (the latter built around the wren-hunting custom), with The Windhover an exciting, if mildly frantic take on a ballad-legend and the album’s title song forming an ideal conclusion to the enterprise. My earlier observation, when reviewing Now Is The Time, that Green Diesel were holding just a little too much in reserve, now only holds true very occasionally, and Wayfarers All seems to make a more coherent use of combined volume in tandem with resources more sparingly utilised, and to a more credible and positive cumulative effect. Green Diesel is a band that is really going places.

www.greendieselfolk.com

David Kidman


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Phil Beer – PLAYS GUITAR AND FIDDLE, SINGS A BIT (Talking Elephant TECD272)

The disc’s title almost couldn’t be more understated or ironically self-deprecatory, and so it probably needs to be taken with the largest pinch of salt. We all know Phil as one half of multi-award-winning Show Of Hands, of course, as well as long-term member of the Albion Band, but even there he can sometimes be in danger of being overshadowed by Steve Knightley, perhaps because Steve’s the principal songwriter in that artistic partnership. To be sure, he’s also produced a number of solo records that have showcased his individual skills, but more often than not in the company of, and trading off the talents of, other musician friends. This latest collection provides us with a generous helping of 15 tracks recorded live in solo concert at venues the length and breadth of the country over the past three years, all sporting a tremendous sense of atmosphere. Phil’s musical personality doesn’t need to be larger than life, for it exudes life itself, and his consummate ability and proven musicianship on the humble guitar and fiddle (and all things mando too) are brought into the sharpest focus in this entirely solo format. The album doesn’t present a continuous performance, but instead a carefully edited and equally carefully chosen selection of songs from right across the tradition and way beyond. There’s “passion in dispatches” aplenty in the likes of Warlike Lads Of Russia (the Nic Jones arrangement), both rabble-rousing and driven, with guitar backing that’s both nifty and stirring. Phil delights in giving some less-well-known songs an airing – some that even the composers’ hardened fans may not have clocked. Those include some really fine songs by Kelly Joe Phelps (the sad portrayal of Tommy), Reg Meuross (the enchanting Birmingham Hotel, which now fulfils its logical destiny as a country-waltzer) and Paul Downes (Life Goes On), while the choice of Jackson Browne item (The Rebel Jesus) was a stroke of genius. Along the way, Phil also makes out a good case for Steve Earle’s stomper The Devil’s Right Hand and Lowell George’s Willin’, while Steve Ashley’s Fire And Wine and the Tull classic Weathercock are welcome and apt additions to his repertoire. Phil’s prowess as a true-born “fiddle-singer” is pretty much second to none, not only on The Blind Fiddler but also on Old Riley (which caps off a pair of energy-fuelled tunes) and the traditional chestnut Pleasant And Delightful. We’re also treated to a persuasive and rousing a cappella treatment of Cathy Lesurf’s majestic Albion Band number Harvest Anthem (here titled Harvest Song); and a particularly lovely rendition of the Irish love ballad Mary From Dungloe (here tenderly separated from its more familiar, long-standing pairing with Ralph McTell’s The Setting in SoH sets). This is a magnificent collection, for which neither the devotee nor the newbie will find any excuse not to purchase.

David Kidman


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Shawn Phillips – FACES (Talking Elephant TECD268)

I’m really enjoying exploring the music of Shawn Phillips, a rather unusual and not easily categorisable talent whose output (15 albums to date) has over the years vacillated wildly between intriguingly individual, distinctly original, enigmatic singer-songwriting, fairly orthodox folk-rock with occasional classical overtones, and jazzy-funky-prog-flavoured synth-noodling experimentation. Talking Elephant have been doing a grand job re-releasing Shawn’s albums; the fourth in the series, Faces, first released on A&M in 1972, is described on the liner note as “an anthropology of music from 1969”. This proves to be a touch misleading, for five of its nine tracks were in fact recorded three years later, in 1971/72. No matter, for the music within is amongst Shawn’s most interesting and rewarding, albeit for much of the time a decidedly challenging listening experience for folks accustomed to conventional song structures and expressions. Of the album’s direct predecessors, Faces most resembles Second Contribution in terms of type and form of content, with some of Shawn’s most adventurous and ethereal, out-there compositions. He takes audible inspiration from session-playing on Donovan albums towards the tail-end of the 60s and melding this experience with an idiosyncratic, radical approach to structure and a predilection for rather unusual, often strange instrumental groupings and arrangements. Collectively, the balance of material on Faces proves highly stimulating, albeit almost wilfully diverse, and IMHO the set contains some of Shawn’s most compelling recordings, for all that they betray an inconsistency of idiom and form that can for some listeners be more than mildly infuriating. The earliest of the disc’s recordings, Chorale, dating from February 1969, has Shawn’s falsetto voice floating across a driftsome soundscape conjured by multiple sitars and guitars (remember that Shawn was one of those credited with helping to teach George Harrison to play the sitar). Landscape is an even more mellow infusion of the late stages of the flower-power era. The flip-side of that aromatic coin is provided by the even weirder track that follows, Parisien Plight II, whose 13 minutes encompass a gong-infused prelude, two minutes of pointless jungle sound-effects and a funky, groove-filled main-section that features a great Hammond organ solo courtesy of sessioner Stevie Winwood. Of the later-recorded tracks, the extended “L” Ballade is a beautiful, if episodic number much in the style of wistful Donovan with a gorgeous orchestral section arranged by Paul Buckmaster, while Hey Miss Lonely is steel-guitar-driven country-folk-rock in the vein of Matthews Southern Comfort; the disc, and three final tracks (We, Anello and I Took A Walk) taking on the companionable mantle of gentle 70s soft-pop-rock romance, perhaps more than a little redolent of Cat Stevens’ work of the time. This reissue also appends a useful bonus track, the Dixieland-jazz-flavoured A Christmas Song, which dates from the Second Contribution sessions (and uses the same musicians) and is taken from a single released in 1970.

www.shawnphillipsmusic.com

David Kidman


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Nancy Kerr – SWEET VISITOR

This enchanting disc has already been the deserved recipient of plenty of end-of-year awards, so I’m sorry this review is a touch late in arriving here. But it didn’t surprise me that there’ve lately been plenty of pointers towards Sweet Visitor’s stylings, on the self-penned material that’s graced the past couple of Kerr & Fagan CDs (the delectable Queen Of Waters on Twice Reflected Sun often gets singled out for replay in this household). Here, though, the consistency of a single authorial and singing voice imparts even greater conviction to the whole project, for all the songs on Sweet Visitor are Nancy’s own compositions. A distinctive feature, and real strength, of Nancy’s own songwriting is her deep grasp of tradition, her canny adoption of the structures and forms of traditional folk music to inform her literate, image-rich expression of a contemporary sensibility in matters concerning life’s tensions, loves and conflicts. Tracks like The Priest’s Garden and Lie Low in particular make effective use of traditional phrasing, referencing and time-honoured devices like refrains. On the other hand, Sickle And Harvest is exquisitely turned in both rhythm and rhyme, and yet lyrically mildly elusive, whereas Hard Songs more readily takes on the mantle of social comment. The sturdier The Bunting And The Crown adopts the garb of spirited Steeleye/Albion-style folk-rockery, with Nancy on deliriously lithe vocal form. Apollo On The Docks seems inspired as much by the model of Ewan MacColl’s Sweet Thames, Flow Softly as much as by mythology, and the laid-back anthem Now Is The Time sports an ambitiously complex (if perhaps in the end also slightly distracting) choral setting. The latter instance is where singing crosses over into scoring, for, being an accomplished musician, Nancy’s also well versed in the possibilities for adventurous arrangement, here specifically in that she’s able to take fullest advantage of the special capabilities of a host of musician friends – this comprising three members of her Sweet Visitor touring band (James Fagan, Tom Wright and Tim Yates – though sadly Rowan Rheingans is absent), with Tim Van Eyken, Rob Harbron, Martin Simpson, Jess Arrowsmith and Emily Smith also on hand for the recording sessions. And Andy Bell’s superlative production ensures that all strands of the instrumentation are clearly defined yet packing the requisite degree of punch. Sweet Visitor has thus far been the recipient of several awards – and deservedly so, for it really is an excellent offering, one that proves Nancy has truly mastered the art of songcraft yet without diverting from her skills as a brilliant singer and instrumentalist; this is (to take a rather obvious analogy, but fully intentionally!) yet another string to her already illustriously well-adorned bow.

www.nancykerr.co.uk

David Kidman


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Jim Keaveny – OUT OF TIME (Own Label, JK05)

Jim’s one of those guys (and there are it seems many!) who, taking their cue from Guthrie, Kerouac and countless folks thereafter, hitch-hiked and train-hopped all over the States from late teens onwards. In Jim’s case, this phase lasted five years, and after a spell in Oregon and Austin (TX) in all manner of jobs, with guitar firmly ensconced in hand and having reached finalist-status at 2005’s Kerrville Folk Festival, and four CDs under his belt, his final settling-down came in Terlingua, small-town West Texas, in 2009. Since then, he’s been building a house – and a musical career in Irish, old-timey and other outfits alongside his solo work. Out Of Time, his latest solo collection, is relatively straightforward – if you take it track by track, that is. For on initial acquaintance, this appears a straightforward record; its musical vision would appear straightahead and direct, and its idioms equally straight-and-true. But this for many listeners will be its most puzzling aspect. The disc opens in strict semi-spoken dustbowl-balladeer mode, Dylan-style vocals drenched with buckets of Guthrie, then moves onto country-style rockabilly (From The Black), throwaway crowd-pleasing cowboy fare (Riding Boots), 80s indie rock (Out Of Time) and brassy Dylanesque R&B (Changing), with even an excursion into 60s beat-group territory (Parking Meter) that turns into a manic frenzy of a psych-guitar workout. Lucy Ain’t Got No Arms (don’t ask!) is surreal, off-kilter western-swing that works, but Someone To Talk To Blues sounds laboured in its attempt to be chunky and tough. However, there’s compensation in Jim’s occasional pleasing tex-mex leanings, notably on I Found A Girl and the affectionate Yippee-I-Ay Song (though the latter arguably overplays its hand just a touch), while elsewhere he employs telltale phrasing and horn licks informed by New Orleans, and there’s always some idiomatic support playing from a diverse collection of musical acquaintances. Jim’s vocal stylings don’t always come off, especially on the talkin’-blues passages, but he’s a capable enough vocalist overall for his songs to carry over. This is one of those slightly frustrating, unpredictable albums where no one track ever seems to have the same degree of impact on each play – so much depends on whether you’re in the mood for any one of the disc’s individual flavours. And at least there’s plenty of choice in the CD’s well-filled 61 minutes. I like some of it a lot, in fact.

www.jimkeaveny.com

David Kidman


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The Men They Couldn’t Hang – THE DEFIANT (Vinyl Star VSRCD004) & THE NIGHT FERRY EP (Vinyl Star VSREP002)

The original folk-punks, championed by John Peel back in ’84 and never wavering from the cause since, have (aside from a brief early-90s hiatus) given us nigh on three decades of solid musical entertainment that’s the ideal marriage between right-on attitude, activist determination and having a plain old good time. And whatever the “cause”, such a marriage will never be out of fashion. The Defiant, the band’s ninth album, has been funded by an enormously successful Pledge campaign. It contains a dozen new band compositions – eight by Paul (Simmonds), two by Swill (Odgers), one apiece by Stef (Cush) and Tom (Spencer). And right from the get-go, you know that Raising Hell is still what they’re about, or at least a large and significant part of things. Those tearing, rasping vocals fuelled by savage bouts of drinking, raucous recreation and the like; those stomping, pounding rhythms; those hooks to die for, those catchy melodies. That’s the disc’s opening salvo, not least, and there’s plenty more power and energy where that came from over the course of the album, whether rocking and rolling through the dole-queue lament Fail To Comply and the slightly ragtime Hardworking People or recounting a storming historical episode (Tavarado), while even on those songs sporting less driven tempi (like Atheni Dreams) there’s still that signature TMTCH thrust and passionate commitment. The band’s brand of socio-political commentary may be tub-thumping, and yes at times more than self-evident, but rarely will you find such sentiments better expressed either musically or lyrically, and amidst the air-punching and fist-waving gestures there’s also a good measure of more reflectively thought- and action-provoking material, notably the mando-driven Scavengers and the wistful Turquoise Bracelet Bay. Only on album closer Twilight Road does the musical setting not seem quite to match the potency and desperation of the lyric. But the whole album nevertheless contains many delights to keep the fans happy and hook in some converts, and the band’s own chunky sound is tellingly augmented by selective contributions from guests Bobby Valentino (violin), David Carroll (uilleann pipes), Jo Cush (trumpet), Nick Reynolds (harmonica) and Jon Odgers (percussion).

The EP, which was released in advance of the album as a fund-raiser-cum-taster for it, contains two alternative versions of tracks from the album (Raising Hell and The Night Ferry), plus covers of I Knew The Bride and Shoals Of Herring; the sheer gutsy presence of the latter reigns supreme even in this company, and is worth the price pf admission alone.

www.tmtch.net

David Kidman


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The Albion Christmas Band – ONE FOR THE ROAD: LIVE IN CONCERT (Rooksmere Records RRCD114)

Normally, from October onwards, the reviewer is deluged with a glut of dubious seasonal artefacts, accompanied by insistent pleas for timely coverage. Curiously, 2014 has been an exception, for it seems that the ubiquitous commemoration of the events of 1914 has provided an unprecedented opportunity for the record industry to take its own Christmas truce, in that I’ve only received two seasonal-themed CDs for review this year! Here on the first of these, one only has to glance at the personnel to gain assurance of top-drawer musicianship and an unerringly apt, enterprising and tasteful choice of material. The Albion Christmas Band has evolved from a series of special seasonal shows by the last incarnation of the Albion Band, out of which Ashley Hutchings convened a small and select crew comprising himself and previous Albion Band members Simon Care, Kellie While and Simon Nicol. If I recall correctly, this lineup has toured for at least three seasons and released three studio albums: high time, then, for a live set to be released. And something of a cracker it is too (ok, pun intended!). It was recorded last December at London’s King’s Place venue, and brings right into your listening-room the convivial atmosphere of an ACB show, its “guided tour through the Christmas customs of Britain” forming an intimate entertainment that provides a gently informative and thoroughly welcome antidote to the standard stereotyped, dumbed-down Yuletide dross served up by the mass media: one that that brings us comfortingly back to the simpler pleasures and values of the traditional Christmas. I’d be underplaying its charms if I described it as the usual kind of mixture of carols and seasonal songs traditional and modern, spoken word readings and dance tunes, expertly collated by The Guv’nor himself – but that’s exactly what it is – sorry, you’ll get no original word-spinning journalism from me there! Suffice to say, singing and playing and reading are all done to the approved high standard, and the arrangements allow just the right amount of flexibility. The menu for this magnificent 70-odd-minute Christmas feast contains Kellie’s superb accounts of Dave Goulder’s January Man, Alan Hull’s Winter Song and Tears For Fears’ Mad World, balanced temporally by Ashley’s thoughtful revisit of his own Mr Trill’s Song (from Mr. Fox days). There’s also Sydney Carter’s Julian Of Norwich, twelfth-day anthem The King, a glorious ten-minute medley of three “proper” carols (Sweet Bells, Hark The Herald Angels Sing and The First Nowell), a goodly helping of lustily played morris tunes and a joyous encore rendition of Seven Joys Of Mary. The spoken word items are commendably succinct and relevant, and range from sober (Advent, Herod And The Cock) to a freshly humorous piece positing a Biblical origin for the Internet! Anyone who’s hitherto fallen under the spell of the ACB’s seasonal show will be unable to resist “stocking up” on this well-planned memento.

David Kidman


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Catherine MacLellan – THE RAVEN’S SUN (Own Label, IDA-CD-270200)

Though daughter of Canadian music legend Gene MacLellan (writer of Snowbird), Catherine’s now quite a local legend in her own right, and certainly among her country’s most talented female singer-songwriters – as she’s already proved since being lauded back in 2008 by Penguin Eggs magazine and releasing albums like Church Bell Blues, Water In The Ground and Silhouette (the first two of which have been reviewed in this mag). The Raven’s Sun marks a further progression along the road of self-discovery for Catherine, with 11 new songs that confront and explore those key issues of life, death and transformation. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that her lovely, slightly understated vocal style suits this kind of material, while her emotional honesty overrides any potential charge of undue sweetness. The softly spoken instrumental settings also provide an ideal gentle foil, with Catherine’s long-term musical partner Chris Gauthier contributing the principal guitar backings (electric and acoustic), a smidgen of mandolin and some nicely-judged vocal harmonies. His incredibly expressive solos on Rushing Winding Wind and Left On My Own are just two of the many high points of his classy playing throughout the album. Andy Leftwich or Jay Ungar may stop by with fiddle in hand to play on three or four cuts (including the stunningly beautiful reminiscence Beneath The Lindens), otherwise it’s just Catherine and Chris in the studio, with Rémi Arsenault on bass – and that’s all that’s needed to bring these songs to life. Don’t Call Me Stranger, and especially Frost In The Hollows, could be early Gillian Welch (if not quite as melancholy, I guess); Tell Me Luella has a gentle gospel flavour; Gone Too Soon is deliciously simple and wistful; Jack’s Song is a brooding opus that – fuzz guitar aside – could almost be another lost Gillian Welch number were it not for the catchiness of its chorus. Summing up the quality of Catherine’s writing is probably best done in two words: clarity and strength; summing up her music, the phrase has got to be wistful intimacy. I’ve played the whole album through a number of times now, and I’ve yet to find a weak link or a track that I’ve wanted to skip. The fact is, with each successive new album she releases I’m getting more and more impressed with Catherine’s work; I’d suggest you start investigating now!

www.catherinemaclellan.com

David Kidman


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The Levellers – GREATEST HITS (CDs & DVD) (On The Fiddle OTFCD019X)

Heralding a major UK tour with a big bang, this lavish, well-proportioned collection is an exciting prospect, not least for its genuinely comprehensive nature. The title is indicative of the playlist, certainly, since the two CDs (tracks all selected by the band themselves, incidentally) contain within their impressive aggregated tally of 35 tracks every Levellers single released over the last 25 years (20 of which were chart hits), taking us from the early-90s fiddle-rich stomp-rock of Liberty and coming right up to date with the mighty The Recruiting Sergeant. Here’s the stats: 18 tracks date from 1991-98, 13 from 2000-12, while there’s a sizeable bonus for hardcore Levs fans too, whereby the final pair of tracks on each disc comprise reworkings of classic tracks also presented in their original form elsewhere on the set: these brand new recordings take the form of sparky collaborations, with (respectively) Bellowhead (Just The One), Billy Bragg (Hope Street), Frank Turner (the brilliant Julie) and Imelda May (the iconic What A Beautiful Day). Aside from these extras, I suspect that some of the early tracks may have been remastered – although this isn’t mentioned anywhere in the booklet credits. Inevitably, the Hits tag will for the newcomer prove most accurate in terms of the choice of material here – “catchy, anthemic power-pop-folk-rock with attitude and drive” possibly best describes the general vibe, with breezy and bouncy (rather than doomy) being the dominant ambience, although not ever lacking in either substance or intelligence of execution, and replete with typically canny musicianship and an era-defining sound whose punchy presence has rarely been equalled and definitely not surpassed. Mark Chadwick’s distinctively impassioned vocal work is but one trademark, and something that won’t ever let you down. Even through the produced gloss of the 29 promotional videos assembled on the accompanying DVD. And personally, I could do without Happy Birthday Revolution and Dog Train… but that’s a matter of personal taste of course. Presentation-wise, this set is exemplary in almost every regard – although I do find it frustrating that the lyrics reproduced in the booklet are in a completely different sequence to the running order on the discs themselves. If I’m honest, I’d say that on the whole the set gives the impression of a consistent output, so that those not in the know and oblivious to the band’s history will remain blissfully unaware of the low-ebb wilderness years of the fag-end of the last millennium before miraculously reinventing themselves and – against expectations – surviving into the present day. Recent Levs converts requiring more detail on the band’s rise to prominence and phenomenal success of the halcyon decade up to 1998 (soundtracked on well over half of this Greatest Hits package), can confidently be recommended to view the latterly-premièred documentary A Curious Life. And by the way, the digital version of the basic set appends four bonus (single) tracks, while there’s also a mammoth “digital box-set”, aimed at the fanatical collector, which delivers the whole of the CD Hits package plus an exhaustive array of B-sides, covers, remixes, live versions and rarities, as well as the video album of 2012’s Static On The Airwaves CD plus bonus videos of the four collaborations. Phew!!!

www.levellers.co.uk

David Kidman


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Broken Boat – SMALL DEFEATS (Own Label, no catalogue number)

I was very favourably taken by this outfit’s debut EP, Peace And Quiet, last spring, and this followup full-lengther is even more impressive, being a collection of 11 immediately appealing own-compositions by Hertfordshire-based songwriter Daniel Bahrami that on first acquaintance come across as gently and unassumingly competent yet with much more substance in both songcraft and the arrangements than that might imply. Couched in the loosely pop-folk ambit of Bright Eyes and The Decemberists, with both of whom they’ve frequently been compared, Daniel’s songs are uncannily simple yet at the same time penetratingly heartfelt, with a subtlety in turn of phrase that belies the straightforward sentiments being expressed. The lyrics are brilliantly offset by the irresistible, glistening jewel-like backings conjured by multi-string-instrumentalist Brendan Kearney (acoustic guitars overlaid with flavourings from country and pop, colours of banjo and accordion, being every bit as aptly and deftly employed as occasional keyboards and a vital yet undistracting rhythm section) which are excellently recorded so that we can appreciate to a maximum the wealth of delicate and often quite intricate detail within those backings. It would seem from the credits that Broken Boat is now a four-piece (Daniel, with Brendan Kearney, Jess Hart and Jerome Maree), although Jerome seems to have been airbrushed out of the photo on the press release); but the sound they make is fuller than that complement might prefigure, and the overall tone quite playful, even on the plaintively mournful, headily swooning café-meditation Morning Rain and the disarming, intimate Song In D. Only on Basement Days does the playfulness and chatter seem overdone. Needless to say, there’s a strong sense of self-confidence in Broken Boat’s music; it both charms and warmly embraces. I like it a lot, and so I’m sure will you, for it’s impossible not to like. www.brokenboat.co.uk

David Kidman


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Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis – OUR YEAR (Premium Records, no catalogue number)

Bruce is one of country’s most respected songwriters (he penned Dixie Chicks’ Travelling Soldier and George Strait’s Desperately, for a start), while Kelly made her break as a singer with What I Deserve around 15 years ago. Their teaming has been a long time coming, and their debut CD as an official duo act, last year’s Cheater’s Game, was by all accounts uncommonly well received (although a copy never reached me, more’s the pity). Our Year is their triumphant followup, and it’s an absolute winner – a genuinely modern take on classic country music without being retro. Mixing originals with covers (some standards), Bruce and Kelly set out their stall persuasively with a number by Robyn Ludwick (Bruce’s sister), the rolling Departing Louisiana (containing a lovely instrumental backdrop of dobro and mandolin with harmonica) and then thrust on through Motor City Man with enviable economy and energy. Lonesome yearning weepie Carousel brings on the pedal steel and fiddle for another classic-sounding cut (co-written by Bruce with Darden Smith), then the tempo racks up a notch again for the decidedly catchy pop-twang of Lonely For You (one of Kelly’s). The couple’s fresh cover of Harper Valley PTA is a distinct success too, as is the disc’s closer, a surprising choice in that it’s a cover of This Will Be Our Year, penned by Zombies’ bassist Chris White. But so it goes – that one aside, this is a regular parade of classy country songs, with each one’s accompaniment expertly judged by producer Brad Jones. Even the string section drafted in for (Just Enough To Keep Me) Hangin’ On tastefully avoids mawkishness, and the song feels just right as a prelude for album standout, T Bone Burnett’s brilliantly melancholy Shake Yourself Loose, for the duet work on which I can only pay the highest compliment of remarking how much it recalls Gram & Emmylou. But take in I’ll Go To My Grave Loving You at the faster shuffle tempo, and marvel at those harmonies. For all throughout the disc, the strong vocal blend Kelly and Bruce achieve is miraculous, absolute magic and wholly natural. Made for each other is only the half of it. www.bruceandkellyshow.com

David Kidman


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Levellers – GREATEST HITS (CDs & DVD) (On The Fiddle OTFCD019X)

Heralding a major UK tour with a big bang, this lavish, well-proportioned collection is an exciting prospect, not least for its genuinely comprehensive nature. The title is indicative of the playlist, certainly, since the two CDs (tracks all selected by the band themselves, incidentally) contain within their impressive aggregated tally of 35 tracks every Levellers single released over the last 25 years (20 of which were chart hits), taking us from the early-90s fiddle-rich stomp-rock of Liberty and coming right up to date with the mighty The Recruiting Sergeant. Here’s the stats: 18 tracks date from 1991-98, 13 from 2000-12, while there’s a sizeable bonus for hardcore Levs fans too, whereby the final pair of tracks on each disc comprise reworkings of classic tracks also presented in their original form elsewhere on the set: these brand new recordings take the form of sparky collaborations, with (respectively) Bellowhead (Just The One), Billy Bragg (Hope Street), Frank Turner (the brilliant Julie) and Imelda May (the iconic What A Beautiful Day). Aside from these extras, I suspect that some of the early tracks may have been remastered – although this isn’t mentioned anywhere in the booklet credits. Inevitably, the Hits tag will for the newcomer prove most accurate in terms of the choice of material here – “catchy, anthemic power-pop-folk-rock with attitude and drive” possibly best describes the general vibe, with breezy and bouncy (rather than doomy) being the dominant ambience, although not ever lacking in either substance or intelligence of execution, and replete with typically canny musicianship and an era-defining sound whose punchy presence has rarely been equalled and definitely not surpassed. Mark Chadwick’s distinctively impassioned vocal work is but one trademark, and something that won’t ever let you down. Even through the produced gloss of the 29 promotional videos assembled on the accompanying DVD. And personally, I could do without Happy Birthday Revolution and Dog Train… but that’s a matter of personal taste of course. Presentation-wise, this set is exemplary in almost every regard – although I do find it frustrating that the lyrics reproduced in the booklet are in a completely different sequence to the running order on the discs themselves. If I’m honest, I’d say that on the whole the set gives the impression of a consistent output, so that those not in the know and oblivious to the band’s history will remain blissfully unaware of the low-ebb wilderness years of the fag-end of the last millennium before miraculously reinventing themselves and – against expectations – surviving into the present day. Recent Levs converts requiring more detail on the band’s rise to prominence and phenomenal success of the halcyon decade up to 1998 (soundtracked on well over half of this Greatest Hits package), can confidently be recommended to view the latterly-premièred documentary A Curious Life. And by the way, the digital version of the basic set appends four bonus (single) tracks, while there’s also a mammoth “digital box-set”, aimed at the fanatical collector, which delivers the whole of the CD Hits package plus an exhaustive array of B-sides, covers, remixes, live versions and rarities, as well as the video album of 2012’s Static On The Airwaves CD plus bonus videos of the four collaborations. Phew!!!

www.levellers.co.uk

David Kidman


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Polka Works – BORROWED SHOES (G&T Music G&T001)

This is a merry, jolly, feelgood ceilidh-band record, of necessity all-instrumental, of the determinedly no-frills variety; brilliantly recorded with loads of clarity and presence, and superbly well played and arranged. And what’s more, the folks in the band just happen to be six of the finest musicians in the genre – step forward, melodeonists Katie Howson and Jeannie Harris; fiddlers Nina Hansell and Fi Fraser; hammer dulcimer merchant Sue Harris; all virtuoso front-liners in their own right, but capable of taking any part within the texture as necessary, a texture reliably underpinned by ace pianist Gareth Kiddier, who keeps his shoes firmly on despite running syncopated percussive rings around the bar-lines. This is no-nonsense straight-from-the-get-go music for dancing, and yet the extraordinary thing is that the listener’s mind and soul will also uplift and dance even if the physical moves are out of the question. For it is a rare ceilidh band record indeed that provokes this reaction. The irresistible, joyous “unbuttoned” spring in the buttons, the glorious glittering clatter of the hammers, the driving (and driven!) strokes of the fiddle-bows, the fancy pedalled footwork of the tickled ivories – each element precisely placed yet responsive to its neighbours to move with the Spirit Of The Dance. Polka Works have been doing their thing for six years, thus their sets are bound to be finely honed to a T (or should I say G&T?!), and yet they still sparkle with all the spontaneity of a great night out on the floor. This CD well mixes the tempi and structures, cannily sequencing these for maximum listener interest as well as providing a sensible programme for any participant-dancers, and I’d defy anyone to get bored with this 53-minute parade of dance-sets. The menu, predominantly English tunes, inevitably includes the band’s own signature sets (many tunes from which have been composed by Sue herself). Right from the hammer dulcimer’s clarion call to attention that kicks off Joe Hutton’s March, by way of sundry jigs, hoolies and lancers, via the strategic mid-disc repose of a pair of waltzes and on steadfastly through to the Cuckoo’s Nest and the bitter-end Irish jiggery of Kathleen Hehir’s, the music’s a constant rollicking delight. I really can’t find anything to fault with this disc – except that it comes with a health warning: it may severely damage your preconceptions as well as your extremities! Seriously – this highly exhilarating disc is one for keeping in the car and playing at top volume to beat away the blues of the direst journey; it will make even the most tedious 25-mile stretch of 50-mph roadworks just sail by.

polkaworks.co.uk

David Kidman


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Bob Copper – PROSTRATE WITH DISMAL (EP) (Ghosts From The Basement GFTB 7048)

No, this isn’t a hoax, nor a misguided April Fool spoof. OK, it’s unexpected, but it’s also wholly delightful in its own eccentric and peculiar way. Not many folks know that Bob Copper, patriarch of the famous singing Copper Family of West Sussex, was for close on 80 years an enthusiast of the blues. But, although he bought his first blues 78 (Sleepy John Estes) in a second-hand shop back in the 1930s, the music remained a private passion until he “came out of the closet as a blueser” for his 85th birthday celebration evening early in 2000, at which he performed Estes’ Diving Duck Blues and made many jaws drop! The very next year, with the same spirited accompanists (Ben Mandelson and fRoots’ Ian Anderson), Bob went into the recording studio and cut just three titles (Diving Duck, Brownsville No.2 and Soul Of A Man). The present five-track EP gathers those tracks together with the pair of titles (Rags And Old Iron and Going Down To Brownsville) that Bob had recorded on separate occasions in the late 90s (privately, at home, for fRoots magazine) with his own concertina accompaniment; fine though the later tracks are, it’s in these stark recordings that Bob’s response is the essence of proves its soulful, often mournful worth. Soul Of A Man, complete with overdubbed extra vocals by John & Jill Copper and Jon Dudley, had previously surfaced on the 2003 Blind Willie Johnson tribute album Dark Was The Night, and appears in that version here. If you’ve read any of Bob’s books, you’ll realise how deeply music (of whatever indigenous nature) touched him – indeed, he actually claimed that both musics (blues and folk) originated from "the same place in the soul". This aspect of his response was translated into his sterling renditions of blues classics. You’d imagine this music would be as far removed from the folk music of southern England as you could get, but then again, you’ve only to think back to Shirley Collins and her work on the Lomax recordings from the southern States… all points to that above-mentioned common sensibility (while it’s great that other performers on the folk scene, like Steve Turner and Brian Peters, and of course Peter Bellamy before them, also have this music in their soul and will thus be similarly unashamed to perform blues numbers and suchlike in their sets, being in theory almost as natural a part of the overall folk repertoire as the traditional ballads. This disc may only last 17 minutes, but it’s classic in every sense of the word, an irreplaceable and unique record of this English gentleman-folksinger bringing passion and understanding to his singing of the blues. You really can’t argue with these fabulous performances.

www.thecopperfamily.com

David Kidman


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The Askew Sisters – IN THE AIR OR THE EARTH (RootbeatRBRCD20)

Of late, Emily and Hazel have spread their wings much outwith their established and well-received sister-duo format, most notably in Hazel appearing with Lady Maisery and Emily with the Dufay Collective. On this, their third duo album, these key experiences can be said to both colour and inform their lively, sensitive, and in some cases increasingly dramatic, reworkings of traditional song. The spirit of the dance has always been a special feature of the duo’s vibrant instrumental work, and the driving combination of Emily’s fiddle and Hazel’s melodeon has always been both remarkable and entirely irresistible; the sense of movement engendered by early music dances in particular is additionally brought to bear, here on selections like the 16th century tune Crimson Velvet and Saint Martin’s (from Playford), also The Whitehall Minuet/Hare’s Maggot set (track 5), which even brings in some vocal diddling to point up what the sisters feel is a curiously Scandinavian feel to the tunes themselves. And Hazel’s new setting of Lewis Carroll’s Old Father William works well as a jaunty Morris-style patter song. The Maid On The Shore, which opens the disc, makes good use of dynamics in the accompaniment to complement the exciting rush of the narrative. Elsewhere, the tried-and-tested big-ballad territory is one area of song where the Askews feel especially comfortable, and their latest recording contains a good helping of such: The Wife Of Usher’s Well and Young Girl Cut Down In Her Prime are treated with due seriousness of purpose, the former’s stark drone setting being particularly apt for Hazel’s alert and involved vocal interpretation. Drama is of course central to the ballad, and The Unquiet Grave showcases the unique expressive impact accorded by the precision and delicate vocal purity of Hazel’s voice when set against the darkly uneasy instrumental backing (concertina and viola). The wistful, plaintive air of I Wish That The Wars Were All Over is also captivatingly well conveyed, leaving a poignant final impression that tempts you to hit the replay button at the end of this short (barely 40-minute) CD. It helps too that the recording (produced by Andy Bell) is a model of clarity, and the fulsome presence of the instrumental textures is admirably transmitted without ever swamping the voices. Finally, a word of praise for the exhaustively detailed yet well readable digipack notes. Folk music, the sisters claim, sits somewhere between the earth and the air; hence the album title, which takes its literate cue from Shakespeare's The Tempest, and those strings in the earth and air certainly do make music sweet.

www.askewsisters.co.uk

David Kidman


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James Delarre & Saul Rose – CABIN FEVER (Infuse 020022012)

Here’s two musicians with an impeccable pedigree, teaming up as an official duo for the first time, after over 15 years of appearing in various groups and combinations all over the folk scene. Fiddle player James was a major force in the fiery band Mawkin, and melodeonist/singer Saul has played a key role in a long series of highly-regarded outfits from Eliza Carthy’s Kings Of Calicutt and Waterson: Carthy through to Faustus and latterly the mighty Whapweasel. James and Saul only met as recently as 2007, however, when they were brought together to play music for Morris Offspring at Sidmouth Folk Week, but they’ve been firm friends ever since, and the tremendous joy they experience from playing music together is evident right from the start on this ebullient and surprisingly varied CD. The menu more or less alternates between scintillating sets of dance tunes (including a few self-penned items) and sturdy, passionate renditions of songs from the tradition. The instrumental tracks strike a good balance between the sprightly, animated selections (favourite morris tunes, the best-known being Princess Royal; a wonderfully swaggering pair of wedding marches; an energetic Quebecois tune; and the Swedish Frida’s – sourced from the repertoire of the band Hoven Droven) and the gentler pair of waltzes (track 3), while the songs fare extremely well, with the duo’s fulsome instrumental accompaniment sensitively handled and entirely complementing the vocal work, which in turn is assured and characterful to a degree that perhaps one doesn’t expect from musicians who are primarily regarded as ace instrumentalists. James’s debut as a singer within the duo comes with a considered, confident rendition of Swansea Town (from the singing of Phil Tanner via Mike Waterson), while the remaining three songs – Lord Marlborough, Moreton Bay and The Saucy Bold Robber – are taken by Saul (whose forthright delivery of the latter-named betrays its source in the singing of John Kirkpatrick). Cabin Fever proves a most persuasive calling-card for this duo act, one of far greater variety and interest than a superficial glance at the lineup might indicate, for their rich, full-toned playing is to be specially commended for its satisfying combination of subtlety and excitement.

saulrosejamesdelarre.bandcamp.com

David Kidman


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Nick Wyke & Becki Driscoll – A HANDFUL OF SKY (WildGoose Studios WGS401CD)

A Handful Of Sky is the third full-length album from this excellent West Country-based fiddle duo, and their second for WildGoose. As well as working in this format, of course, each of them has been branching out into other areas of musical activity – Nick working with Gadarene, Jackie Oates and Jim Moray and researching the fiddle music of his native North Devon, and Becki running workshops for Wren Music as well as playing for and with The Angel Brothers. This is another of those CDs whose basic lineup belies the diversity of delivery and expression to be found within its grooves, for it’s definitely not just the dry-sounding combination of two fiddles, however attractively they may be heard to consort! The range of tonal blends they conjure is clearly derived from years of working together, knowing and responsive, while their own arrangements are also invariably configured for maximum musical interest, mindful of each musician’s particular qualities (Nick’s characteristic driving force and Becki’s gift for melodic invention. As well as the standard fiddle, both Nick and Becki play viola, while Becky gets to air her talent on the bassoon on a delicious pair of South-Western hornpipes (track 5). Some tracks also benefit from a solid rhythmic bedrock supplied by James Budden’s double bass. The purely instrumental selections comprise two-thirds of the dozen tracks, but it may come as a surprise to discover that the vocal numbers produce some of the disc highlights. Becki’s precise, slightly chilling delivery of a Dorset version of The Cruel Mother provides an unexpected high watermark for the album; also very much present on this track, and on the chiming vocal duet The Torrington Ringers, is the delightful French horn playing of Ellen Driscoll (who I believe is Becki’s sister). Becki also charms the listener on her rendition of The Exmoor Ram which rounds off the disc in suitably bouncy “jolly sing-alongy chorus” fashion. All of the instrumental tracks possess that distinctive sense of complementary presence that’s a hallmark of the Wyke-Driscoll musical partnership, and it’s hard to single out any one selection for special praise, but I especially enjoyed the set of jigs (track 2) that concludes with the defiantly non-English Cock Of The North, and the invigorating Prince Of Arabia (track 11). This well-balanced disc will doubtless bring much pleasure to lovers of finely coordinated playing and singing.

www.englishfiddle.com

David Kidman


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Mark Harrison – THE WORLD OUTSIDE (Own Label, no catalogue number)

Mark’s a singer-songwriter of the bluesy-rootsy persuasion, with a personable performing style that, while (if only to attempt possible reference points) it may variously recall Ry Cooder, Chris Smither or Eric Bibb, remains individual and, once latched onto, distinctively identifiable – which may be a less extravagant claim than it sounds. The World Outside is Mark’s third CD, and to take a glance at the new album’s packaging it might seem just a continuation of Crooked Smile, in that it adopts an identical presentation format, attractively designed with colourful artwork and integral booklet containing full lyrics, brief notes on the songs and photos of all participants. As for Mark’s songwriting, not for him the navel-gazing of the archetypal s/s, but he takes his subject-matter cue from the music which has so clearly been his inspiration – the delta blues of the 1930s and 40s and the various roots musics that the southern States have spawned. Funky disc closer Hard Times Now posits the viewpoint of Honeyboy Edwards on the street violence he sees in the modern world; Long Gone Miles, which tells the story of Lightnin’ Hopkins, has an easy-rolling flute, mandolin and snare-drum backing that harks back to the sound of country-blues master Henry Thomas, while In The Neighbourhood draws parallels between the old medicine shows and modern-day practitioners of medicine who are equally natural charlatans (plus ça change!). And the primitive percussion and gospel chant backing for Your Second Line evokes the parade spirit (if not quite the most raucous letter) of a New Orleans funeral. On that track, as indeed throughout the whole album, Mark’s brilliantly idiomatic National guitar work impresses – as indeed does his prowess on all other varieties of guitar! He commands further expert instrumental (and vocal) support from a small but effective team comprising Charles Benfield, Will Greener, Josienne Clarke, Ben Walker, Ed Hopwood and Guy Bennett. Of these persons, Josienne and Ben are already familiar names to folk cognoscenti, and their presence is a further guarantee of special quality (indeed, amongst the disc’s highlight tracks can be numbered Not All Right and Floatin’ Around, on both of which Josienne takes the lead vocal role, and Long Long Way To Go, where she duets with Mark); but to be fair, each member of Mark’s valiant support-crew makes a comparably telling contribution that’s completely in tune with Mark’s own music-making and the tenor of his songs and artistic vision. His companionable life-philosophy, as wryly – and welcomely unpreachily – espoused in songs like Run, Panic Attack and the chirpier Where Ignorance Is Bliss, is entirely right-minded, speaking simply but persuasively of contemporary, proven-universal truths; it may seem obvious, but its reasoning and context is sincere, his tone encouraging and inspirational and the musical expression tasty in the extreme. The World Outside is one of those precious albums which makes its mark on first impression, sure, but then proceeds to slow-burn its delights into your consciousness when and least you might expect it to burn deeper. That may be why it’s taken so long for me to get round to extolling its timeless virtues in these pages; take a chance and grab a copy now – you’ll thank me for the discovery!

www.markharrisonrootsmusic.com

David Kidman


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Fiona Hunter – FIONA HUNTER (Rusty Squash Horn Records RSH004CD)

Fiona’s best known as lead singer with award-winning Scots band Malinky, and her reputation and stature has clearly enabled her to call upon the talents of some of Scotland’s finest musicians to help her record her debut solo album. It has turned out one of the most captivating traditionally-based albums of recent years in fact, all knitted together with her exceptional singing voice and under the expert production guidance of Mike Vass. Mike has not only faithfully captured the essence of Fiona’s musical personality, but also surrounded her with unerringly sympathetic and refreshingly conjured accompaniment courtesy of Matheu Watson (guitar), Euan Burton (double bass), and of course his own supreme instrumental talent (fiddle, guitars, mandolin, etc.). ; Fiona herself contributes cello, harmonium and shruti box to the mix, while there’s also some occasional vocal assistance from (at one point) close on 20 other singers including Gillian Frame. My comments above inevitably reflect that Fiona’s interpretations of the material are the entirely necessary focus of the disc, and it’s no exaggeration to say that her empathy with her characters and the feelings being portrayed is second-to-none. Her treatment of The Cruel Mother is arguably one of the finest committed to record, and her version of MacCrimmon’s Lament can’t be faulted for its expressive elan and assured emotional commitment. Fiona tackles industrial song with sensitivity too – Shift And Spin receives a telling yet fleet-footed rendition, while The Bleacher Lass Of Kelvinhaugh is another inspired choice in this animated arrangement (capped by a delightful reel composed by Mike Vass and named after Fiona herself!). Lesser-known ballads like The Laird O’ Drum are treated with due reverence without losing in narrative thrust, while Fiona’s versatility extends to the more playful songs like Jock Hawk’s Adventures In Glasgow and Burns’ fun tale of matrimonial strife The Weary Pund O’ Tow. The dark, mellow undertow bestowed on songs like The Braes O’ Gleniffer, Bleacher Lass and Andy Hunter’s stirring war memorial Ye Heilan Chiels by Fiona’s signature cello playing is also most appealing, while Mike’s viola adds a similarly elegant timbre to the disc’s gently poignant centrepiece Young Emsley. The disc is well packaged, with a booklet containing proper credits and just enough information on the songs to be genuinely informative without overloading the listener. Yes, this release proves a most attractive proposition.

www.fionahunter.co.uk

David Kidman


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Mishaped Pearls – THAMESIS (Own Label MISSHAP03)

Mishaped Pearls (tho’ why not Mis-shaped Pearls, I wonder?) is a rather unusually-constituted outfit from London that refuses to be pigeonholed while coming altogether closer to folk and new-classical than anything else. I can’t quite get a handle on the extent of the personnel, but the nucleus appears to be the group’s 2009 co-founders, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Ged Flood and vocalist Manuela Schütte, together with album co-producer and fellow multi-instrumentalist Gerry Diver (famous for the pioneering soundscapes he’s hitherto conjured for Lisa Knapp and others). The current band lineup would seem to be completed by Andrew Sleightholme, Tom Finigan, Massimo Troiani and percussionist Calie Hough, although other musicians (including five string players) also appear on the album at times. Mishaped Pearls’ music has much of the defiant trailblazing feel of the early-70s folk-psych practitioners, yet they manage to quite effortlessly steer clear of self-conscious gimmickry and overtly challenging musical statements while remaining ear-grabbingly present in the ether within which they play, and above all eminently accessible. The well-focused and brilliantly uncluttered acoustica of their instrumental panoply serves to cradle the gently intense and quite extraordinary vocal presence of German-born Manuela, who takes the lead singing role on just over half of the disc’s ten tracks. Manuela’s enunciation is exemplary (she’s a classically-trained mezzo-soprano), and she displays an enviable precision in emotional expression that combines with a base-line of vocal purity in a way that can remind one at times of Jacqui McShee. Her treatment of Three Ravens (derived from the traditional English ballad) explores the various facets of her impressive vocal armoury in a delectably menacing musical setting masterminded by Gerry (who’s also a key player throughout the whole album, contributing eight different instruments as well as some creative electronic treatments).
The group sound has been described as other-worldly, and yet it’s not out of this world; in other words, while it does incorporate some distinctly psychedelic trappings at times, especially in terms of its unorthodox and often surprising instrumentation and some backward-looped effects, it keeps its feet firmly on the terra firma of ethnic folk and world music. Thematically, certain defined threads are heard to tellingly bind the album’s tracks: water (chiefly in the guise of Old River Thames, of course, which is heavily present on two key tracks), while the rowing boat motif links the water onward, to birds on Doves, then more birds coursing through Fledgling and the aforementioned Three Ravens, as well as forming an eerily audible tapestry that weaves and warbles intermittently during the band’s prescient reworking of Ralph McTell’s First And Last Man (as Woman, naturally) and introducing the dank, somewhat claustrophobic climate of Tamesis itself. As for the songs themselves, all but the McTell are original compositions by Ged that both invoke and exhibit consistent references to and from both traditionally-informed and adopted-traditional sources. Ged’s singing voice is less obviously “cultured” than Manuela’s, but no less thrilling to listen to and no less convincing in its effective communication of the songs’ tales and messages. Jimmy (based loosely on the folk ballad of Polly Vaughan) and the more obscure Six Dukes both construct their unsettling narratives out of pounding beats and tribal rhythms, while the delicate, almost liquid pattering of Doves with its scurrying pizzicati and frailed banjo texturings sounds as fragile as a bird’s egg, belying its sinister and dramatic portent and mantra. Only the disc’s pithy wordless doodle of a postlude, the neo-Satie-esque minute-and-a-half of La La La, feels like an afterthought, even a bit of a makeweight in its illustrious, meatier company, with its companionable tidal ebb diluting just a little the considerable impact of this vital and highly stimulating song-sequence.

www.mishapedpearls.org

David Kidman


Rosanne Cash – THE RIVER AND THE THREAD (Decca/Blue Note)

The River And The Thread represents the final part of a trilogy of albums beginning with 2006’s Black Cadillac; on the second release, 2009’s acclaimed The List, Rosanne celebrated her late father Johnny’s legacy by covering songs that he’d recommended to her, and now her progress down the river of life thereafter has led her on a journey through the Southern spirit, through the thread of personal songwriting, to this latest collection. 11 out of its 14 tracks were penned jointly by Rosanne and her longtime collaborator and husband John Leventhal, who’s produced the album. The songs are without exception singularly well crafted and evocative, whether they’re dealing with places, history, geography, people, or deeper essential truths. Thoughtfulness of expression is the key, and the intelligent settings (drawing on the mix of music that traces its history to the South) are both individually attractive and lovingly conceived, conveying just how much the experience of the South means to Rosanne. From the delicate chamber-orchestral palette of Night School to the deceptively warm brassy glow of Civil War ballad When The Master Calls The Roll (the original version of which was co-written by Rodney Crowell and John Leventhal, originally for Emmylou Harris), each song has its own special climate. Standouts include the tenderly expressive real-life narrative of Etta’s Tune (Etta being the widow of Johnny Cash’s one-time bass player Marshall Grant, who had been surrogate father to Rosanne after Johnny’s death), and the supremely eerie Money Road, evoking the place where the ghosts of Emmett Till, Billie Joe and Robert Johnson collide. There’s a puzzling technical glitch (it could just be on my copy?) whereby track 13 (Biloxi) seems to be chopped abruptly at just under three minutes in, but otherwise the production is impeccable. Guest musicians adding to the already potent atmosphere of the recording include John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, Rodney Crowell, Tony Joe White, Allison Moorer and Gabe Witcher. The River And The Thread is nothing less than an essential journey for the soul.

rosannecash.com

David Kidman


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Colum Sands – TURN THE CORNER (Spring Records SCD1062)

Colum’s ninth album is quintessential Colum, proving that here’s one man whose talents the sands of time have not ravaged. His laconic but scrupulously honest liner note explains that writing and completing a new album’s worth of songs could only be achieved through what amounts to an enforced layoff from “the laziness of keeping busy and using endless activity as an excuse for avoiding serious thinking”. This entailed a whole year (2012) when Colum took a year out from presenting the radio programme and slowed down on concert touring, and here he’s turned the corner into the following year with the release of this new record. As ever, it features a number of instantly catchy, memorable songs that sparkle with easy wit and companionable humour while effortlessly evoking the simple pleasures and universal truths that we associate with Colum’s homespun philosophy. All of which are couched in the gentle cradle of the inimitable and wholly irresistible lilt of Colum’s soothing voice and his straightforward yet effective guitar accompaniments, fondly enhanced by the selectively used contributions of a host of eager guest musicians and singers including Karen Tweed, Brian Finnegan, Steve Cooney, Sinead Stone, Nuala Curran, Ged Farrelly and fellow-members of the illustrious Sands family. The concept of turning the corner forms a thread that cannily binds the majority of the album’s songs, but (curiously) one of its most memorable tracks is an exception to this, indeed something of an oddity; the quirky Two Angry Dogs is a tale from Co. Down of a pair of feuding canines, which Colum (bizarrely) recalled when asked to write an article for a German newspaper. And the playful Piper In The North Country employs Claire Byrne to pipe in its lyrical litany of traditional tune titles. But, back on the central theme, the many corners Colum has turned during the process of composing this latest collection of songs include the literal ones, those of the landscapes of his travels (the reflective yet puckish humour of Lazy Hill), the philosophical ones like the virtue of common sense (the jaunty Annie I Owe You), and those metaphorical corners turned by the perspective of history (the angry commentary of Walls And Windows; an inspiring account of the 1889 Armagh train disaster The Spirit Lives On, and the totally charming The Glassmaker’s Hand, written for a campaign to prevent the closure of Broadfield House Glass Museum). The Longest Night And The Shortest Day closes the set with a reassurance that we can all turn the corner in celebrating the light above and demonstrates that the extremes of nature and life are often much closer than we think. Finally, the title song is a heartfelt expression of the state of reaching home (however that state is expressed or conveyed) by turning the final corner of the journey. For as ever with Colum’s albums, the journey is over all too quickly! Yes, Turn The Corner is another exquisite album from Colum, with which none of his fans will wish to turn the corner without purchasing. And it comes in a typically fulsome and beautiful package with full notes and lyrics. Magic…

www.columsands.com

David Kidman


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Barb Jungr – HARD RAIN (Kristalyn Records KLCD1) This disc is subtitled The Songs of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen: but remember that Barb, without question one of the country’s finest chanteuses and interpreters of song, is no stranger to this repertoire, having already treated us to a whole album of Dylan covers as long ago in 2002 (Every Grain Of Sand), then three contrasted covers on 2008’s Just Like A Woman CD, the full-blown tribute album Man In The Long Black Coat in 2011, and latterly a tender version of Lay Lady Lay on 2012’s Stockport to Memphis release, for which collection Hard Rain can be seen to provide a natural followon. Barb’s on home territory as regards the excellent arrangements, which come courtesy of her long-term collaborator and accompanist, pianist Simon Wallace, who commands a small yet perfectly formed ensemble whose persuasive scoring and close attention to inner detail reaps considerable rewards with its telling combination of pared-down and rich-tone ambience. The recording does them all proud, with depth, clarity and perspective that ideally matches and counterpoints Barb’s intimacy and expressive nuances; these are supremely classy, highly assured performances. Barb’s integrity, technique, and clear affinity with the songwriters’ work, is never in doubt, and interpretively (and on a quality entertainment level too) there can be no dispute. So what’s there not to like?…
The difficulty lies partly in the choice of material, I think. Whereas the 2002 collection ranged widely (temporally speaking) over Dylan’s output, Hard Rain concentrates on the early, bitter, energised-polemic, high-word-count songs (It's Alright Ma, Masters Of War, Chimes of Freedom, and of course Hard Rain), no doubt for the reason that they resonate every bit as powerfully today as when they were written. However, all of these tend to feature monotonal melody lines and aggressive delivery, and pose a considerable problem for the reinterpreter who needs to retain or enhance their impact but of necessity take us out of the “adopted cliché” of Dylan’s own distinctive performance style of that time. Even the more overtly tuneful Blowin’ In The Wind has all too often had its message diluted by soft-edged and/or poor amateur cover versions, Having said that, Barb does a splendid job in jazzing the lines, attaining a typically well-judged measure of improvisatory cool and responding to the texts in her own special way, partly in lingering over the imagery (where she’s able to do so, that is) and partly through voicing a kind of scattergun overflow that wraps lines round and across and away from the metricality of the bar lines; it can be disconcerting, sometimes misleadingly giving the impression of a lack of control, or alternatively when taken at a measured speed may feel laboured since it can’t always succeed in replicating the heady Dylan “stream-of-consciousness”. And yet, Masters Of War actually benefits from its new garb as a slower-paced, reflective treatise. The most recent Dylan cover here is Gotta Serve Somebody (from 1979’s underrated Slow Train Coming album), whose plain-thinking gospel is in a different league from the other five choices and a more natural fit for Barb’s own sensibilities. Moving on to the Cohen numbers, these too aren’t necessarily the most “obvious” of selections (taken from just the three albums New Skin For The Old Ceremony, I’m Your Man and Ten New Songs, but ranging over a quarter-century of songwriting). Barb is specially suited to the chanson-vibe of 1000 Kisses Deep, making great capital out of lovingly caressing the lyric, every syllable counting, and she really makes the enigmatic Who By Fire her own by recasting it as a delicate, questioning utterance that takes due cognisance of those all-important “spaces in between” the words and notes; First We Take Manhattan is gently moody in exactly the right way, and Land Of Plenty both plaintive and atmospheric, while Everybody Knows swings enticingly (and sits well in complement to Blowin’ In The Wind). Summing up – even bearing in mind my reservations regarding some of the Dylan songs, Hard Rain is still a considerable success, simply due to Barb’s own spellbinding artistry, which will ensure that these songs haunt you for some time after the music has ended.

www.barbjungr.com

David Kidman


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Laura Beth Salter – BREATHE (Shee Records LBSHEE01)

Laura-Beth, mandolin player from all-female outfit The Shee, proves on her solo album that she’s more than just a very capable instrumentalist with a fresh, lively, animated playing style and a most attractive singer with a warm, involving delivery. Armed with examples from her New Voices Commission from Celtic Connections 2012, Laura-Beth now brings to the table a distinct, albeit at times underdeveloped talent for original songwriting, clearly taking her inspiration from present-day role models ranging from Alison Krauss to Karine Polwart, but also with something of the feel of contemporary gospel at times (as on songs like Big River) and traditional cautionary-tale balladry (The Devil & I). Album opener Carry Me is a Nickel Creek-like slice of soulful newgrass, while Our Bottle & The Waiting Waltz (familiar from its more fully-scored version by The Shee) is both enigmatic (in a kind of Lal Waterson sense) and reflective, with particularly captivating mandolin and dobro solos. The frantic Yadda brings some tricky rhythms into the mix with panache, serving as a fitting prelude to the bustle of Calm Before The Storm. Understatement is also a virtue, however, as Laura-Beth’s arrangements amply demonstrate, and exposure of the fine detailing therein is helped by the excellent recording. Laura-Beth’s recruited as musical accomplices a small but perfectly-formed crew consisting of her duo partner Jenn Butterworth (guitar), Nathon Jones (dobro), Session A9’s Adam Sutherland (fiddle) and Breabach’s James Lindsay (double bass), who together lend the ensemble playing a specific identity with an equally definite bluegrass leaning (as opposed to the Scottish trad feel you might expect to encounter). The playful cross-fertilisation of influences, of Scottish traditional music and bluegrass tunes, is most evident on the funky groove of the instrumental track Watching The Hive, while the second all-instrumental cut, Shine, feels comparatively by-numbers in its musical progress through five minutes, in spite of its energetic nature. Laura-Beth also tackles a pair of covers (Tim O’Brien’s Brother Wind and Bob Dylan’s Meet Me In The Morning), which are both in tune with her sensibilities and she obviously enjoys singing them but they feel a bit routine in the context of the main interest here, the self-penned material, which is more than sufficiently accomplished to leave the listener eager to discover where her next album will lead.

www.laurabethsalter.com

David Kidman


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Clannad – NÁDÚR (ARC Music EUCD2471)

The legendary band is back – and performing again! Nádúr (named from the Irish Gaelic word for “nature”) is the first “new-material” album to be released with the original line-up since 1989’s Past Present, and is the preview for a full UK tour in March 2014 co-headlining with Mary Black. In their signature entwining of the traditional and the modern, Clannad were pioneers, while they also took in a number of more eclectic elements and made a unique brew. You could say that their music has for the past few decades been synonymous with the concept of cutting-edge celtic (although I parted company with them several times on their blander synth-dominated chart successes) and by current standards it may be judged a touch safe, even at times over-beautiful, to quite own that label (with much more radical musical waters having flown under the bridge since). Whatever, there’s no denying the crucial role Clannad played in the sourcing and innovatively reinterpreting for the modern age of hitherto obscure traditional songs which they fed into their own original compositions – check out Hymn (To Her Love) for a good example of this process. At its best, as on the limpid, yearning TransAtlantic and the timeless waulking rhythms and stentorian harmonies of Turas Dhómhsa chon na Galldachd, Clannad’s music is intelligently and tastefully arranged, with commendable restraint, and due emphasis placed on the wonderful vocal contributions, most especially the peerless singing of Moya Brennan. The instrumental skills of her siblings Ciarán and Pól, and uncles (twins) Noel and Pádraig Duggan, also invariably play a large part in defining the Clannad sound, of course, and the band dynamic is even further filled out by drums and keyboards courtesy of Ged Lynch and Steve Turner respectively. A handful of special guests (e.g. Steve Cooney, Eamon Murray, Aisling Jarvis, Alan Bailey and Duke Special) also make cameo appearances The expansiveness of the larger-scale, more cinematic production numbers like Setanta and Vellum are offset (and complemented) by the more fragile, pared-down harp-and-whistle-led canvas of the slow air Lámh ar Lámh and the deliciously intimate, moulded keening of the gorgeous closing track Cití na gCumann, while the infectious beats of Tobar an tSeoil have the power to move even the most jaded of foot-tappers. I much regret the fact that the package doesn’t include any translations or even summaries for the songs’ lyrics. Current tastes may still find the classic Clannad sound, as so brilliantly defined on Nádúr, a little too lush and ornate, but it pays to persevere and let it soak its way into your consciousness, for there’s all manner of lovingly-configured detailing to discover within the confident, respectfully creative musical texturings.

www.clannad.ie

David Kidman


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Beth Nielsen Chapman – UNCOVERED (BNC Records)

While thinking about selecting songs for an upcoming box-set, Beth took upon the idea of recording a disc of songs that she’d written (or had a significant hand in writing and/or co-writing) and which had been covered by other artists but which she’d not managed to get round to recording herself. It’s a mixed bag sound- and style-wise, being recorded in four different locations (Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Beth’s own Nashville studio, although the unifying force is Beth’s skilfully crafted writing. Beth’s high standing among her peers (on both sides of the Atlantic) is reflected in the presence of a number of high-profile, top-calibre guest musicians and singers, many of the latter appearing for just a one-song cameo duet with Beth. These are sometimes artists with a direct connection to the version that became a hit (as on the country-chart-topping Five Minutes, where Lorrie Morgan is here joined by Pam Tillis), but for the most part these BNC versions create some enticing new juxtapositions and possibilities. Particular successes for me include Sweet Love Shine (which also scores highly due to some glorious deep twang from veteran Duane Eddy), the classy country-rocker Nothin’ I Can Do About It Now (a hit for Willie Nelson), the resolutely chirpy celtic-bluegrass of Strong Enough To Bend (a hit for Tanya Tucker), and the Alabama hit Here We Are (where Beth brings in co-writer Vince Gill). Maybe the disc opener Simple Things (with Kim Carnes) is a touch more pop than country (the catchy One In A Million fares better), but the disc closes on a swinging gospel-style groove with Almost Home, made famous on Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Party Doll & Other Favourites collection; Beth here being enticingly backed by Gretchen Peters, Suzy Bogguss and Matraca Berg (now there’s Wine, Women and Song indeed!…). Listening to this upbeat, feelgood collection it seems all the more strange that commercial (i.e. chart) success has eluded Beth; it therefore provides a salutary reminder of the enviable breadth and craft of her songwriting talent, not to mention the fun she had recording them.

www.bethnielsenchapman.com

David Kidman


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Patty Griffin – SILVER BELL (A & M/Universal 06027950037)

Folks who know Patty only from her role as sometime sideperson with Robert Plant’s Band Of Joy might be surprised to discover she has quite an exhaustive back-catalogue of CD releases in her own right as a singer-songwriter, which now stretches to (if I’ve counted right!) eight studio albums and one live set. Last summer she released her latest record of new songs, American Kid, the success of which clearly formed at least part of the impetus for the belated release of Silver Bell, the ill-fated, nay legendary, hitherto unreleased followup to 1998’s Flaming Red album. Ill-fated simply because it fell victim to the turn-of-the-century ownership change of the A&M label, and remained in the vaults until now, much sought-after as a critical missing piece in the jigsaw of Patty’s career. Two of its songs (Top Of The World and Truth #2) had surfaced in covers by the Dixie Chicks (on their best-selling 2002 record Home), and that band’s Natalie Maines had covered Silver Bell itself on her solo debut Mother, but Patty’s own versions never appeared at the time. Recorded in 2000, Silver Bell is very much an album of transition, between the hard-rockin’ vibe of Flaming Red and the more considered introspection of 2002’s sublime 1000 Kisses; the amazing thing is that it retains a good measure of artistic unity despite its constant switchback of modes. This is attributable to Patty’s confident, strong musical personality, her singing voice on this set of 14 original songs proving tenderly compelling on Top Of The World (which arguably most points the direction Patty’s music was to take from then on in), One More Girl, the impassioned rustic waltzer So Long and plaintive reminiscences like Mother Of God, and in contrast really belting forth on out-and-out rockers like Boston and the title track. OK, there’s just a few fillers scattered through the set (e.g. Sorry And Sad), but there’s plenty to satisfy over the close-on-an-hour’s playing-time of the whole set. Patty’s backing crew teams long-time collaborator guitarist Doug Lancio with Jay Joyce, John Deaderick, Billy Beard and Frank Swart, while there’s a special treat when Emmylou Harris drops in for backing vocals on one track (Truth #2). This album has languished in those vaults too long, and it’s great to see it finally gaining release (and especially since its original, allegedly dated touches have been smoothed out in this new mix by Glyn Johns too). By the way, it also has the distinction of being the last album recorded in its entirety at Daniel Lanois’ Kingsway studio in New Orleans.

www.josienneclarke.co.uk

David Kidman


Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker – NOTHING CAN BRING BACK THE HOUR (Folkroom Records FRR1401)

This latest offering from the award-winning duo has been as eagerly awaited as any record this year, and the very act of following 2013’s Fire And Fortune was nigh impossible to imagine. But with the wonderfully aptly titled Nothing Can Bring Back The Hour, Josienne and Ben finally get to realise their five-year-long ambition, to make a record summing up the recurring themes and simultaneous, ever-conflicting life preoccupations of fearless and daring forging ahead on endeavours tinged with acute regret and an often intense air of loss. To describe it as their destiny, to make a record expressing timeless and universal sentiments such as this, would sound like a cheap and tired cliché – but there’s no more accurate description for this endeavour. Let me say at once that this is a truly exceptional record: one which, while immediately recognisable as the creation of Josienne and Ben as we know them, nevertheless manages to surprise and delight us anew with every track. Yes, the bedrock basic elements we associate with Josienne and Ben, their trademarks, are still very much present and correct: the tremendous delicacy and deliberate poise of the vocal and instrumental contributions of both protagonists; the heart-stopping intimacy of their delivery; the enviable economy of expression in the songwriting; the dark tones, undertones and overtones of the songs’ poetry. But in fully embracing the Wordsworthian philosophical stance and grasping at their life’s chance by reaching all out for the attainment of their dream, the couple have expanded their palette and achieved an artistic high that’s elevated way up there in the stratosphere above the lofty heights attained by Fire And Fortune. Not only can we appreciate the level of achievement of Josienne’s percipient songwriting, now increasingly assured and sophisticated, mirrored with pinpoint precision in her caringly and carefully enunciated singing, but we can also admire under close-up scrutiny the sheer inventiveness and refined beauty of Ben’s miraculously skilled musical arrangements. For this is a record to truly savour, again and again, in every detail and with the close-up concentration it absolutely and unreservedly demands. Josienne and Ben have put an incredible amount of work into this project, and thought long and hard about every nuance of arrangement and setting. Characteristically, extreme clarity is achieved at all times, not only when sparseness of texture is the norm. and the effect is invariably seriously haunting. Here, on top of the customary fragile-yet-powerful vocals and intricate guitar weavings, are interleaved and configured spellbinding new layers of sound: these might comprise swooningly lush and yet luminous chamber-folk strings that cradle the lyrics, or else altogether more subliminal yet boldly confident treated instrumental traceries that weave below and through Ben’s own limpid classically-inspired guitar lines.
However, the settings, while abundantly imaginative, never distract from the majestic power and control of Josienne’s artful inhabiting of the songs. Each of these resembles a vignette of a waking dream, where an alternate dark variant of reality collides – and even colludes – with the actuality of the present as refracted through the ever-lurking past, where individual songs (like dreams) leave a lasting impression from which it’s difficult to awaken. Silverline’s old-fashioned-waltzing pizzicato steps indulge in a cautious, if elusive dance to the music of time, while on the intriguingly episodic The Tangled Tree Josienne’s impassioned, spine-tingling intensity finally takes up with a meandering reverberant piano for travelling companion. A gently rippling banjo figure underpins the tender mariachi-country vibe of Moving Speeches, yielding to the ominous tumbling atmospherics of the extraordinary Mainland, washing over the speakers and through your head, the implicit rhythms finally foregrounding, pounding in counterpoint to the ebb-and-flow siren-song vocal harmonies, and drumbeats at length subsiding with the tides. Three traditional songs nestle among the self-penned items, giving highly persuasive and contrasted listening experiences. The singer of I Wonder What Is Keeping My True Love Tonight is portrayed as both rather disturbed and strangely resilient; a trip-hop shuffle imparts a savvy air to her advice Let No Man Steal Your Thyme; and The Queen Of Hearts here adopts an aloof, courtly demeanour. There’s a Whispering Grass style half-paced lazy lounge jazz shuffle on the forward-glancing Water Into Wine and the regretful I Never Learned French with its impudent trumpet obbligato, and eerie pulsating cascades of insistent choral interjections impart a sumptuously heavenly afterlife aura to the bleak sentiment of Earth And Ash And Dust. For indeed, Nothing Can Bring Back The Hour. The process of making this particular record may well have been a one-off, but its sublime depths will continue to enchant just as its music is destined to live for ever; I might predict that in years to come this album will be accorded masterpiece status even among its illustrious folk forebears.

David Kidman


Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker – MIDWINTER (Own Label, JCBW001)

Apologies for the late appearance of this review, but if truth be told the disc only reached me shortly before Christmas, when any sensible websites had to all intents and purposes closed their drawbridges even to the pressing seasonally-related releases. During 2013, Josienne and Ben twice became deserved Folk Award nominees, and consolidated an already healthy reputation as a captivating live act, but their crowning achievement was to be proud recipients of the Fatea Album Of The Year Award for their exceptional breakthrough CD Fire And Fortune. Given the generally downbeat, even melancholy nature of the material the duo customarily associated with Josienne and Ben, it might be thought against their nature to be releasing a whole album of bright-eyed, pure and overtly celebratory seasonal fare, but they demonstrate that their known virtues of purity of tone and simplicity of approach can be applied equally effectively to carols and songs for the turning year.

Now I am getting heartily sick of cash-in carol albums that turn up unbidden each and every year, but my faith in, and previous experience of, Josienne and Ben’s music were to prove sufficient justification to chance placing this disc in the player at the appropriate juncture of the seasons. And this despite the tracklisting revealing the presence of all six of my least-favourite carols! These can be regarded as perfectly charming, and they’re certainly faultlessly and tastefully dispatched, with a disarming (and innocently childlike) simplicity (which however can’t entirely avoid cloying), and a mild overdose of backing vox in the heavenly-angelic-choir department at times. I’ll admit, I’d have preferred Josienne to’ve been a little more enterprising with some of these (well-considered though her singing is at all times), and to have sought out one of the alternative tunes for Away In A Manger, for instance. But the rest of the disc more than makes up for my curmudgeonly personal prejudices, both in terms of repertoire and quality and style of performance. Josienne’s neatly poised a cappella rendition of Shepherds Arise is singularly thoughtful, while she also turns in well-judged performances of Adam Lay Ybounden (the Ord setting, with Ben’s nimble guitar supplying precisely the requisite measure of courtly elegance), Balulalow (based on the Britten setting with its notoriously difficult compass), and the delightful Tomorrow Is My Dancing Day, whose tricky cross-rhythms are expertly negotiated by Ben’s nifty, skipping guitar work. The deliciously swing-mode Hot-Club-style take on God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen is also a triumph for both singer and guitarist, and proves both wholly irresistible and full of the necessary spirit, whereas Josienne and Ben show that even We Three Kings can survive a more tentatively jazzed-up treatment. The judicious use of recorders, and very occasional flute, sax and mandolin, to augment the basic acoustic and/or Spanish guitar textures also pays dividends.

Congratulations, then, to Josienne and Ben for taking the brave decision to produce a seasonal record – and let’s hope this will inspire them to reach further afield for suitable material for a 2014 or 2015 sequel.

www.josienneclarke.co.uk

David Kidman


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Matt Woosey Band – ON THE WAGGON (Own Label MWCD 002)

The hard-working and surprisingly young Matt Woosey (still in his mid-20s, but with an impressive five-year CV) came highly recommended to me; I’ll admit that, given the paucity of time available to check out new music these days, without such an endorsement I probably wouldn’t have bothered unduly. Nevertheless, at first I found this album a touch workmanlike and merely efficient, this impression based on a playthrough while my attention was partly elsewhere. But closer, more attentive exposure revealed an altogether more wide range of expressiveness than might normally be associated with a loosely blues-based record, and an unexpectedly individual performing style in Matt himself (a distinctive blues-shout vocal and slap-and-pick guitar playing). The subtlety of attack and a degree of inner lyricism – qualities not normally associated with a blues-roots offering – are recurring features, notably on tracks like Don’t Need Money, One Of The Three, Cruel Disposition and the John Martyn-like Elsie May. Matt’s voice isn’t always ideally easy to warm to, and yet his mix of knowingly soulful, sideways-looking and passionate is as endearing as his clear-sighted instrumental prowess – and, happily, he’s devoid of unwelcome cliché in his lyrics. Matt’s small but perfectly formed band, comprising drummer Jim E Williams and bassist Adji Shuib, do the honours and pass the acid test with flying colours (Jim even provides a better-than-average drum solo to redeem the final track, the otherwise uninspiring grind of Dopey Mick), while the subtly driven acoustic-bedrock is both consistent and persuasive. I’ve dwelt here on all of those positive qualities because On The Waggon has a lot going for it – but at times, and depending on how closely I’m listening, I still find the edgy quality of Matt’s vocal style grates on my ear a touch.

www.mattwoosey.co.uk

David Kidman


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Sam Baker – SAY GRACE (Own label, no catalogue number)

Sam hails from the Texas prairie town of Itasca, and his method of expression is fittingly stark and Zen-like, writing songs with beautifully chosen words. Say Grace is Sam’s fourth collection of self-penned material; his first, Mercy, came out in 2004, and, with the ensuing Pretty World and Cotton, formed a neat trilogy that addressed a particular life-changing experience (that of surviving from a terrorist bomb on a train and coping with the severe and horrific injuries sustained in the incident). Say Grace is a quintessential example of the “same as the other records but different; just like life” axiom, but lest that sound like I’m just glibly writing it off as more of the same, I would assure you that while it may be literally true as a continuation of Sam’s work-ethic, it’s still an immensely compelling collection of songs, each one a strongly individual creation. I’d honestly be inclined to speak of Sam in the same breath as when discussing the legendary Texan songwriters, for his songs have, variously, the stamp of John Prine and Townes Van Zandt, with overtones of Kris Kristofferson, not to mention on occasion Slaid Cleaves – while the south-of-the-border flavours of the likes of Tom Russell also surface from time to time (as on the solo-accordion-backed Migrants). These songs, with their intense yet relaxed, conversational ambience and suitably weathered vocal styling, simply have to be listened to, with a closeness that respects that quality in the music at all times. Sam’s own quirky musical arrangements – which involve, among others, Anthony Da Costa, Rick Richards, Drew Pressman, Steve Conn, Tim Lorsch, Chip Dolan and Joel Guzman – cohere exactly with the album’s rather special mindset, and contain some extraordinary and sometimes unexpected manoeuvres that match Sam’s own (dare I say it?) almost Lou-Reed-like semi-spoken delivery. Ranging from dusty travelogues and monologues to sparky electric alt-cabaret (Feast), from the fetching little hymnal Sweet Hour Of Prayer to the late-night lounge of Button By Button (both of these songs being among the handful which feature additional or harmony vocals courtesy of either Carrie Elkin, Raina Rose or Chris Baker-Davis), there’s a surprise around almost every corner. And, for all Sam’s tragic background, Say Grace enjoys a positive outlook on life, and it’s a supremely stimulating collection that demands to be heard. Usefully, full lyrics and credits are embedded in the disc too, by the way.

www.sambakermusic.com> David Kidman


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Annie Keating – FOR KEEPS (Own Label, no catalogue number) The fifth album from Brooklyn-based indie singer-songwriter Annie is a further strong collection of songs, if not quite eclipsing her fine Belmont from a couple of years back. It’s equally well recorded, though, as the driving True Blood opener Storm Warning shows, and around two-thirds of the songs are up to that standard in terms of attractive arrangement and thoughtful, if often also quite gritty, lyricism of content. The twangsome All Gone, the yearning Right By You, the atmospheric and intimately reflective River Clyde, are all especially strong offerings, with a refreshing honesty of delivery that’s reflected in the accessible, appealing, hook-laden backdrops. Songs like these are indeed very much for keeps, and among Annie’s best to date. And she’s in great voice on these tracks particularly. It’s a pity, then, that this album contains a touch of padding here and there; although her cover of Neil Young’s Cowgirl In The Sand, which closes the disc, is certainly significantly better than respectable, we could probably do without the luxury of two different versions of Take Only What You Can Carry (not a standout song by any means), whereas Annie’s flirtation with NY street-disco-rap (Let It Come) feels like a misplaced concession to trendiness, and the mildly rock-flavoured Sidecar also disappoints. For Keeps is an uneven effort, then, but I wouldn’t write Annie off by any means, and the best of her work easily stands up to comparison in the crowded Americana s/s arena. www.anniekeating.com

David Kidman


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Barney Bentall – FLESH AND BONE (True North TND572)

Since 1978 a veteran of the Vancouver indie-songwriter scene, and founder of The Legendary Hearts band back in the 1980s, Barney has so far released three independent albums and seven studio albums, drawing their inspiration from anything from storytelling to cattle-ranching, invariably invoking the wide-screen landscapes and concerns of the coast-to-coast panorama that is Canada. His songs are both current and historical, taking life as it comes and moving full circle through its phases. He easily embraces musical styles from indie-folk to country-roots to cajun, always with insight and conviction. So why do I remain unmoved by so much of Flesh And Bone? Its best tracks are those where Barney himself is most at ease and doesn’t seem to be trying too hard to be likeable: I could single out Her Beautiful Mind, a tender love song with backing vocals by Angela Harris, also the Gordon Lightfoot-like narrative-song Ballad Of Johnny Hooke, and the rousing full-band-backed Four Went To War and the rootsy High Up On The Mountain (with vocal harmonies from Wendy Bird and Angela Harris), as four contrasting successes amidst the rest, which are summed up by the markedly less distinguished, pedestrian Annabel and the rather over-obviously celebratory One Fine Day. There are companionable touches of Dylan here and there (not least in the harmonica breaks), and occasional nods to the likes of Petty (L’Anse Aux Meadows), Springsteen (St. Valentine’s Day) and even Prine on occasion. But not even the dependable support playing, from Rob Becker (bass), Geoff Hicks (drums), Rick Hopkins (piano and organ), Eric Reed (banjo, electric guitar) and guests Kendell Carson and Shari Ulrich and Adrian Dolan (fiddle) can quite redeem what feels to me like fairly routine writing. It’s a coincidence that several members of Barney’s musical crew on Flesh And Bone also feature in the lineup of the true-bluegrass ensemble The High Bar Gang, whose authentic-sounding debut CD I’ve just reviewed; here, as there, their musicianship is perfectly efficient and commendable, if a little anonymous.

www.barneybentall.com

David Kidman


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Christa Couture – THE LIVING RECORD (One Foot Tapping Records OFT1006)

Vancouver-based chanteuse and survivor of adolescent cancer Christa’s been through a lot again of late, with the tragic loss of her infant son in 2008 (which inspired her last album) followed in 2010 by the loss of her second son. You could say that it’s the old cliché about the best songs being written from out of the experience of deep tragedy, and many of the songs that form The Living Record are quite seriously heartbreaking, when you listen closely to the words: almost unbearably so at times, as on Parasite, Lucky Or Lost and Hopeless Situation. And yet that latter title belies the climate, the feeling of hope that pervades other songs, most especially the kinda-title-track (The Way Of The Dodo), the life-affirming experience portrayed in You Were Here In Michigan, and the touching (if perhaps a little sentimental) duet with Jim Byrnes (Paper Anniversary). No, it’s not with Christa’s lyrics that I feel just a bit uneasy… it’s rather the seeming mismatch with the sometimes cloying musical settings, which places the listener in danger of underestimating or misrepresenting the lyrics due to the bright-edged nature of the music that cradles and accompanies them. Steve Dawson’s production is impeccable, his instrumental contributions also brilliantly managed, but somehow it doesn’t feel quite right for Christa’s vision. And the album’s vampy, cabaret-styled moments (Pirate Jenny And The Storm and Pussycat, Pussycat) feel distinctly out of place. Yet there can be no argument with the quality of Christa’s singing, nor her passion or conviction – and bravery – in addressing difficult and painful subject-matter.

www.christacouture.com

David Kidman


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Jarrod Dickenson – THE LONESOME TRAVELER (Own Label, no catalogue number)

The Texan-born, now NYC (Brooklyn)-based singer-songwriter brings us a followup to his 2008 record Ashes On The Ground, with a new collection of self-penned rough-hewn chronicles of struggle, solitude and adventure much inspired by the writings of Steinbeck. These are modestly engineered, adhering to a likeable acoustic-cum-electric-country-roots template and not departing radically from that milieu. Heard in isolation, each song has its own genial appeal, but there’s nothing really ear-grabbing or newly minted about Jarrod’s music; his thought-processes are familiar, his imagery and musical expression equally time-honoured. Occasional more enterprising instrumental settings compensate to some measure, e.g. on songs like I Remember June, as does the standard of musicianship (and, with folks of the calibre of Greg Leisz, Richard Dodd, Sebastian Aymanns, David Piltch and Jebin Bruni on board, well that’s none too surprising). But in the end, although this is a better-than-workmanlike singer-songwriter record, with nothing wrong with it, not in any sense clichéd and with much to commend it, there are nevertheless more distinctive examples around and in the end it proves nothing to overly shout about in spite of a certain old-fashioned crafted quality that characterises its finest moments and despite the intimate, well-worn, if at times slightly morose charm of Jarrod’s singing voice (a feature which I appreciated more as the album wore on, actually). And I really loved the closing Seasons Change, written for one of the album’s overall dedicatees, Jarrod’s grandfather Homer.

www.jarroddickenson.com

David Kidman


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Dàimh – TUNESHIP (Goat Island Records GIMCD003)

This is the West Highland (Lochaber and Argyll) band’s fourth album, yet it marks only its first personnel change in 14 years: out go Colm O’Rua and James Bremner, to be replaced by Damian Helliwell (mandolin, banjo), while in the vocal department Calum Alex MacMillan is replaced by new recruit Griogair Labhruidh, who happens to be one of Scotland’s finest Gaelic singers.

But for the initial stages of Tuneship, the ship is indeed driven by the tunes, three glorious tracks parading the band’s trademark high-octane powerhouse full-steam-ahead pipe-and-fiddle-led attack. A grand sound indeed, splendidly together and forceful, ideally blended and furnishing each band member with exactly the space to stretch and show off as well as demonstrate his skill at listening to and responding to his fellow-musicians. Despite the necessarily dominant sound of Angus MacKenzie’s big Highland pipes (and occasional whistles), all other elements are clearly heard and given their due; Ross Martin’s adept and thoroughly accommodating guitar style never needs to resort to thrash yet maintains the essential drive, while the skill of Gabe McVarish’s swirling fiddle work is not to be underestimated and Damian proves his worth on his extended, gentle (self-penned) mandolin showcase Bottle For Brigg alone. A few guest musicians are also brought into the mix (notably percussion ace Donald Shaw, fiddler Eilidh Shaw and bassists Jenny Hill and Duncan Lyall), companionably embellishing rather than over-egging the texture with both sensitivity and due deference to the band’s own internal dynamics.

But, superb be all the instrumental tracks (virtually all of the tunes having being composed by band members too), the disc’s three songs also score highly this time round (although it would’ve been useful if the booklet had included a précis of their texts). Griogair’s manner is easy and natural, yet the tone of his voice is strong and pointed and the impact is telling; perhaps the instrumental accompaniments can on occasion seem a touch fussy and insistent, yet at the same time it’s good that they don’t subsume the texts by overly fulsome scoring. Oh, and Griogair also contributes some (uilleann) piping of his own to the mix on occasion.

All in all, Tuneship (named after a 100-year-old Viking warship, incidentally) amounts to an exhilarating and refreshing listen, unpretentiously so in fact, which proves without doubt that the band has convincingly weathered the storm of lineup change.

www.daimh.net

David Kidman


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Brandy Zdan – LONE HUNTER (Cavalier Recordings CR255607)

Brandy Zdan (pronounced, apparently, “zuh-dan”), was one third of the contingent of the “ABC of Canadian Music” tour of the UK last October, which also featured Cara Luft and Po’ Girl’s Awna Teixeira. She’s a well-regarded musician (six-string guitar, lap steel and accordion), but also possessor of a supremely melancholy voice that’s said to veritably echo the windswept Winnipeg prairies where her hometown’s located – all this to sing her poetic, experience-laden songs telling of life’s trials and tempering heartache with hope. This all-too-brief (21-minute) six-song EP finds her in compelling solo mode (albeit multitracked on guitars and percussion) on three songs, accompanied by George Reiff (percussion, guitar) on one song, and Ricky Ray Jackson (pedal steel) on two, augmented by two backing vocalists from Austin (TX)-based female supergroup The Trishas (Jamie Lin Wilson and Kelley Mickwee) on O Where. Anyone who was impressed with Brandy’s solo performances on the tour will very probably have already bought this EP at the gig, but it’s worth seeking out belatedly by those unlucky enough to have missed the tour. Brandy’s songs are yearningly atmospheric, and her fellow-musicians help her to bring out the best of all that latent melancholy in her lyrics; it’s a gorgeous sound.

www.brandyzdan.com

David Kidman


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The High Bar Gang – LOST & UNDONE (True North TND583)

Here’s straight-down-the-line traditional old-school gospel- bluegrass done in classic style by a Canadian outfit, recorded in down-home fashion, live and in true mono, with the seven-piece all somehow crammed into the living-room of guitarist Barney Bentall. Hatched, matched and dispatched with minimal fuss.

Their formation and inspiration arose out of guitar/mandolin player Colin Nairne’s repeated visits to the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festivals in San Francisco, and their sound is built around the harmonies of Colin’s wife Wendy Bird with Angela Harris and extra vocal lines from Shari Ulrich and Barney B, the solid-state instrumental chops being provided by Shari’s fiddle, Eric Reed’s dobro, mandolin and banjo, Rob Becker’s bass, and the aforementioned Colin and Barney on guitars. And they’ve been learning from exactly the right gospel-bluegrass role-models, for the material on this their debut disc almost exclusively comprises affectionate and faithful covers of songs recorded by The Stanley Brothers (Over In The Old Glory Land, Angel Band, Daniel Prayed, Paul & Silas, The Fields Have Turned Brown) and Bill Monroe (Walking In Jerusalem, Mother’s Only Sleeping). To these they append Green Pastures (by Thorpe Osburn), Rank Strangers (by Albert E. Bridge) and Heaven’s Light Is Shining (by William York), together with Hank Williams’ I Saw The Light and – in an inspired departure from the strict tradition – Julie Miller’s lovely All My Tears (fetchingly sung here by Wendy).

It’s all as authentic as they come. Altogether, you might say, the bar is set high, and this gang sure measures up to it – and attains it – throughout the disc’s 39 minutes. But…although everything is in its rightful place, the overall effect is perhaps just a little respectful and even polite – even though the guys are all obviously getting off on the music they’re making. Fans of the genre are unlikely to be seriously disappointed, but it may take more than this well-drilled self-styled “gospel bluegrass companion” to convince an outsider.

www.highbargang.com

David Kidman


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The Mediaeval Baebes – OF KINGS AND ANGELS (Queen Of Sheba QOS009CD)

This final (and rather last-minute) entry in this year’s seasonal record stakes is one that’s been hanging around my player for a few weeks, its charms only gradually creeping up on me. The Baebes are a high-profile act, yet somehow managing to evade my own radar over the decade-and-a-half that they’ve been in existence, at least prior to their most recent, ambitious double-disc release The Huntress. The inevitable impetus for getting Of Kings And Angels reviewed in time for the last-minute Christmas shopping spree, however, has ensured this pleasurable task its priority. It turns out to be a seasonal offering with more to it than meets the immediate ear.

On a cursory listen, especially to the first three tracks, there may seem to be nothing to shout about, merely a pleasing outing for genial, well-harmonised and gently fulsome arrangements of well-loved carols (I Saw Three Ships, We Three Kings and The Holly And The Ivy). The Baebes are blessed with suitably angelic voices, befitting the well-groomed and impeccably styled beauty of the photographic images that adorn the disc’s commendably lavish accompanying booklet, and they certainly deliver a classy product. Although Katharine Blake and her five fellow Baebes share vocal duties, Katharine herself takes the lead – or joint lead – on the majority of the carols, which imparts a certain degree of unity to the proceedings. She’s also credited with the instrumental arrangements, which tend to involve instrumentation deriving from the early music arena (recorders, viol de gamba, viola d’amore, psaltery, and an assortment of medieval percussion) with occasional exotica (crumhorns, santoor, oud, hurdy gurdy) and one or two more modern additions (acoustic guitar, violin). These settings are unobtrusive but characterful, and intelligently and accessibly managed. As indeed are the vocal treatments of the well-known carols, even if some don’t add much new to our appreciation of these timeless standards. A small handful depart from tradition, and are the more successful for it: Gaudete receives extra harmonies and staggered entries, and proves a worthy successor to the Steeleye Span chart-topper, while Good King Wenceslas is given an almost ominous tone by virtue of a highly original minor-mode transposition, and God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen is unusually irresistible here.

Notwithstanding the creative skill with which the instrumental backdrops are configured, however, I’d argue that the best tracks are those sung purely a cappella: Veni Veni Emmanuel uses the Latin text to great effect, and The Coventry Carol is especially well done, with an acute (and entirely fitting) sense of unease. Benjamin Britten’s pithy but haunting setting of Corpus Christi Carol is another triumph, whereas the little-known Basque folk carol The Angel Gabriel and the even more obscure celebration of the virgin birth Ther Is No Rose Of Swych Vertu (sung in Middle English) are particularly enterprising inclusions in the programme.

Yes, in spite of the presence of the slightly sickly Away In A Manger and Silent Night (two of my personal no-go carols), this manages to achieve the rare status of a Christmas record with a difference – and distinctive enough to earn a hearty recommendation for those with open minds.

www.mediaevalbaebes.com

David Kidman


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Various Authors - Witches’ Hats & Painted Chariots: The Incredible String Band and The 5,000 Layers Of Psychedelic Folk Music (published by Shindig Magazine www.shindig-magazine.com)

This glossy 108-page A4 publication comes courtesy of the good guys at the excellent Shindig magazine, and is one of their series of specials outwith the normal run of the magazine itself. Its stated aim is to pay a dedicated tribute to the ISB and in doing so examine the subsequent rise of what has become known as Acid Folk: an ambitious enough aim for even the most knowledgeable and informed, whether commentator or fan. It’s a very brave attempt: also a kind of labour-of-love one might say, clearly both intensely well-meaning and undertaken with the best of intentions by folks who actually care about and seriously appreciate the music. It looks incredibly attractive, with appealing and eye-catching design entirely befitting the subject matter and era, lavish use of colour and texture and some marvellous, and wholly relevant, photographic and ephemeral material extremely well reproduced. And its central premises and thesis are credibly introduced and contextualised. There’s no attempt to disguise the fact that, even by the candid admission of many, including band members themselves, the ISB were flawed, inconsistent and often musically less than secure; but their esoteric charms and often unconsciously pioneering outlook and practices were both informed by and informing of their time, and have both then and since had a far-reaching effect on musical developments and experiments both within and outside the world of folk music. Sure, there will be those who say that the ISB were not the only ones doing this or that, that they were not entirely original, and so forth, but then again, they would never harbour pretensions to being all-knowing gurus. Whatever, more and more folks are coming out of the closet and admitting that the ISB’s music has been a formative influence or key experience – even, and often with hindsight, a sneakily subliminal one; for some of us, it has never gone away or gone out of fashion!

The basic format of the book comprises two specific strands, which more or less alternate over the course of its 100-or-so pages. The first of these, logically enough, concerns the ISB themselves, and is effectively subdivided into three categories of essay. One category is a chronological series of articles on the individual ISB albums (that means all of the official ISB LP releases, but ignoring subsequent compilations or other crucial releases like archive collections such as The Chelsea Sessions) and two of Robin Williamson’s solo albums. Although many of the commentaries are spot-on, and most contain reliable, rightly perceptive nuggets and generally sensible overviews, the inevitable drawback with this strand is that eight different authors are involved, so there’s little consistency either in terms of perspective or the amount of inner detail given, and some albums are thus bound to achieve a better quality of coverage than others (OK, some are vastly more important too in the scheme of things, and I’d be the first to concede that). The second, and related, category is a loosely connected set of essays taking the form of personal reminiscences, reflections on the effect of the ISB on those people closely involved – Robin and Mike themselves on different periods of the band’s activities, Clive on the (very) early years, Jeanette Howlett on the high-profile 2009 concert celebrating the band’s music, and a fan’s experience of discovering the band’s music. The third category presents separate reappraisals of Robin’s post-ISB solo career, and two of Mike’s solo albums.

The book’s second strand, indexed as “Friends”, presents a number of self-contained essays that purport to explore connections (musical and/or cultural) between the ISB and other bands or trends or sub-genres. The coverage is necessarily selective (as one would expect in the limited space available), and not all of the ten bands discussed here in depth might be regarded by admirers of Acid Folk as essential to our understanding of the cause; diehard fans will doubtless find legitimate reasons for substitutions within, or extensions of, the roll-call. Me, I think the book’s compilers have done a pretty good job with the perhaps too all-embracing task they’d set themselves, but hey, one can’t please everybody and so there’s no mileage to be gained for criticising what the book is not – if you get my drift. One or two of the individual essays (like that on Dando Shaft) merely reproduce (or cut-and-paste) a liner note or other already-published essay, whereas others have been specially commissioned and provide clear reference points that conjoin with or illuminate the main thesis. The pieces on Dr. Strangely Strange, Forest, COB and Comus are both very useful and (more often than not) genuinely revealing, whereas one or two of the others don’t seem to go quite far enough either in their appraisals or with the connections being made. And of course, it goes with the territory that one’s gonna disagree with matters of relative detail or final assessment… Alongside pieces on Mr. Fox, Spirogyra, Anne Briggs, Mark Fry and the band called Heron (no relation!), we find a discourse on Medieval Folk In The ’70s which uncover the tip of another iceberg or two and helpfully points out avenues for further exploration) and a full-blown piece arguably tenuously linking the ISB to that seminal movie The Wicker Man (hmm…).

But overall it will come as no surprise that a goodly proportion of the book’s potential target audience will be well satisfied with the publication, and doubtless many outwith its intended market will also appreciate a copy. Newcomers to the magical world of the ISB will wonder how they’ve lived so long without, while they will quickly come to appreciate the sheer myriad of music the band has influenced – and, importantly, been influenced by, often being pleasantly surprised at the quality of invention within. For, as the book’s co-compiler Jon “Mojo” Mills posits in the book’s foreword, the ISB’s was a sound that defined what we now routinely call “acid-folk”. That may be only part of the story, but it’s just fine as a starting-point. Just as I did when originally discovering each of the albums in turn, I’m sure you’ll be eager to check out various other musics, obscure and not-so-obscure musical and literary references and cross-cultural connections – and of course it’s all so much easier nowadays, with so much music readily available (just remember how seriously nigh-impossible all this research was way back in the 1960s – and even thru to the ’80s!).

Perhaps – or even because of, I dunno – its niche-market status, and this is a curious thing, but in one major respect this book succeeds big-time – namely in providing a readable and attractive “hey, look what’s out there and what’s been going on – so go grab yourself a listen” taster, one that really makes you want to investigate the music without having to sift through a whole load of hype and bull****. You feel that generally you can trust most of the judgments laid down here, that the pronouncements and conclusions are at worst reasonably authoritative. Even though the quality of the writing is distinctly uneven, and some of the features within contain a lot less detail than desirable even acknowledging their “taster” role. Even though there’s a lamentable lack of crediting of far too many of the photos in the book, and some unnecessary duplication of images (the album cover of The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter appears twice, for example). Even though the editing is a touch slipshod at times, and there are several howlers, careless typos (e.g. Harp Rope!) and continuity glitches (and a few factual errors – e.g. there aren’t any sitars playing on A Very Cellular Song!) that really should’ve been spotted and just haven’t been dealt with. Even though for the confirmed or longtime ISB fan there’s little new in the way of information or insight within any of the individual album commentaries (and the quality of criticism and perception varies oh so wildly at times, with some titles like Changing Horses and U getting unkindly short-shrift treatment – and how can any review of the incomparable Wee Tam & The Big Huge omit even mention of Air, The Iron Stone and The Circle Is Unbroken??). And finally, it would’ve been good to expend a few pages on a decent discography properly denoting the currently available CD editions of the ISB and other key Acid-Folk albums (the appended “guide to 20 essential acid-folk releases” is in several cases frustratingly inaccurate in terms of detail of current availability and uptodate editions of these albums).

So, while the recent ISB convert will in all probability swiftly desire something meatier and more academic/scholarly (in which case investment in Helter Skelter Publishing’s excellent Be Glad ISB Compendium is essential, topped up with Jeanette Leech’s Seasons They Change and Will Hodgkinson’s Electric Eden: a combination of reading to be highly recommended, and at least the first-mentioned of those three titles should be purchased with alacrity), Witches’ Hats…is still, despite its shortcomings, a most cherishable publication, one for which I’d not hesitate to provide the necessary modest modicum of slim-A4-height space on my crowded bookshelves.

David Kidman


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Gill Sandell – LIGHT THE BOATS (Rowan Tree Records RTR004)

Although Gill’s an important member of Emily Barker’s Red Clay Halo lineup, she’s also a very talented performer in her own right, a multi-instrumentalist and singer par excellence. Back in 2011, she released her solo debut Tarry Awhile, which though well received didn’t get to penetrate my radar; more’s the pity, if the captivating, unique quality of its followup is any indication of what I’ve been missing. No matter now, for Light The Boats is a clear-sighted and eerily fresh-sounding collection of new self-penned songs that possesses the interesting quality of sounding calm and comforting yet on close examination proves to be riddled with dark, sinister, almost ominous undertones. Companionship is scary. Therein resides the subliminal challenge to the listener, one which is a pleasure to accept time and again in nestling up close to the speakers and luxuriating almost guiltily in Gill’s invocation of the spirit of isolation that permeates her writing.

Many of the songs were written during periods of self-imposed isolation from civilisation, none more obviously so perhaps than the open-chorded yet lusciously scored epic Distance, which was written on the Isle Of Harris. Just as the vision of a beautiful morning sky can so easily fill one’s consciousness with thoughts of foreboding (shepherd’s warning), so Gill’s gentle chordings and precise, preciously enunciated phrasing may betoken deeper deliberations. Often, therefore, ambiguity rules, as on The Border and The Listening Ear, while the childlike storybook simplicity that permeates the worldview of the illustrations in the disc’s accompanying booklet is only partially mirrored by the innocently tentative questionings within the lyrics of songs like Somedays and the uneasy lullaby Rooms For Sleep which leaves one with the indelible image “I wrap my arms around upon the sea”. The lonesome windswept atmospherics of Every Willing Answer invoke a desolation that’s belied by the delicacy and pure beauty of Gill’s voice and the gentle rocking guitar accompaniment, providing a standout track and key musical experience, while the glistening rushing motion of Forget Our Fires provides a kind of companion piece to the ensuing Wide Eyed Wandering with its heavenly rippling mermaid-harpscapes. The album’s more sumptuously upholstered moments score highly too, from the chamber-orchestral gestures of Somedays to the harsher pounding suitcase and pool-table rhythms of Sparkle Eyes and foot-scrunching Sickle Swing.

The whole album was recorded in rural Norfolk during the long winter of earlier this year, with judicious guest appearances from Gill’s Red Clay Halo colleagues as well as Adrian Crowley, Ted Barnes, Chris T-T and Ali Friend; but Gill’s own intense musical personality remains the absolute and unequivocal focus.

www.gillsandell.com

David Kidman


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Brooks Williams – NEW EVERYTHING (Red Guitar Blue Music RGBM-2013)

OK, so it’s not to be taken too literally, this album title – for even tho’ it does contain plenty of newly-penned material (most of which has already been well road-tested at live gigs) it’s also a release that unassumingly and naturally-as-breathing intersperses a generous clutch of Brooks’ own idiomatic original songs with just three covers (Dave Alvin’s King Of California, the Delmores’ Deep River Blues and K.C. Douglas’ Mercury Blues). With any new Brooks Williams album, the listener’s expectation is to be automatically greeted with a series of soulful yet wonderfully relaxed performances embodying a seemingly effortless command of all branches of roots music, from blues to ragtime, gospel to country, s/s and Americana to classic guitar instrumental work, with occasional world music influences. Such expectations are of course amply fulfilled in this thoroughly satisfying latest offering from Brooks. His ultra-accomplished technique needs no introduction, and there’s countless examples of his tasteful coordination of flying fingers (at whatever speed!), both in the foreground and further back in the focus of these 13 tracks; the many subtle touches he brings to the arrangements will never fail to surprise and delight the connoisseur of such expertise. Brooks invariably carries us along completely with his unbridled enthusiasm for the music as he constantly and confidently walks the time-honoured line between the genres. So he takes us on a journey from the insouciant rockabilly shuffle of One Step, through the ironic Cooderesque political commentary of Prosperity and Son Of A Gun, the so-catchy-you-feel-you know-it-already Buddy Holly/Clive Gregson-style neo-pop of the supremely economical title track, the more introspective Playground Games and the sultry pairing of Time 4 Love and Teach Me, via Carry On, a ramblin’ open-road country-blues ode to live music, here aptly presented in two quite different versions. Brooks’ own instrumental and vocal talents are supplemented brilliantly on this disc by those of a select few key musical friends – Martin Simpson provides a companion resonator guitar on Deep River Blues, and elsewhere there are sensitive contributions from Kevin McGuire (double bass), Steve Lockwood (harmonica) and the trusty Andy Seward/Keith Angel rhythm section, with occasional appearances from Neil McSweeny, John Wheeler, Gustaf Lundgren, Boo Hewerdine, all assembled in studio by Andy Bell and Mark Freegard (Sheffield and Glasgow respectively). Masterly and classy, and self-recommending to any Brooks Williams fan or convert.

www.brookswilliams.com

David Kidman


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Aidan O’Rourke – HOTLINE (Reveal 017CDX)

Lau’s ace fiddler is also a composer of some standing, and while winning the Composer Of The Year title at the 2011 Scots Traditional Music Awards he’s also extremely well versed in other idioms than traditional music. Hotline, his third solo album, brings us even closer to his embracing of jazz and experimental classical avant-garde, ostensibly but by no means exclusively within a broad framework informed by the tradition (indeed, it’s not until near the end of track 2 of Hotline that a recognisably trad-influenced theme emerges, and even then its skirling patterns are treated minimalistically).

The whole album takes the form of a suite commissioned by the Tobermory Arts Centre An Tobar as part of PRS For Music Foundation’s link to the London Cultural Olympiad of 2012, together comprising five pieces inspired by Aidan’s memory of his father telling the tale of TAT-1, the first sub-marine transatlantic telephone cable carrying the Moscow-Washington hotline, this facility being housed in a building just outside Aidan’s hometown of Oban. There are samples of telephonic chatter threading through the music at times, which occasionally distract a little, but the unity of the music is strengthened by its atmospheric character (some of it was recorded within the aforementioned building) and the significantly boundary-hopping nature of the contributions of Aidan’s hand-picked pool of fellow-musicians, which provide the distinctive sounds of harp (Catriona McKay), piano (Paul Harrison), percussion (Martin O’Neill) and especially tenor sax (Phil Bancroft).

Hotline is a distinctive and satisfying project, best experienced in the sparkling, animated fourth piece HMTS Monarch and the suite’s fiddle-rich finale Gallanach Bay (titled after the Scottish terminal of the cable). And Lau fans are urged to give it a try too, not least for their essential fix of Aidan’s own superlative and inventive playing.

www.aidanorourke.net

David Kidman


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Will Varley – AS THE CROW FLIES (Smugglers Records SR015)

Will’s described as a fiercely independent singer, novelist and filmmaker; having three years ago moved out of London to the seaside (Deal, Kent), he then fairly promptly went off on a self-imposed 140-mile busking odyssey (guitar and tent on his back, apparently). Now, at the age of 26, he’s just released his second album of original songs, which showcases his own particular brand of contemporary folk songwriting that, while very much of our own time, nevertheless contains distinct resonances (if not specific echoes) of the more forceful of the late-60s/early-70s champions of the craft.

Will’s powerful, mostly admirably dedicated commentaries take up the mantle of those exponents with a stylishly lyrical intensity of observation, his own trademark rippling acoustic guitar setting up an atmosphere of urgency that never quite lets up over the album’s span. Home truths and pertinent observations characterise the best of Will’s creations, and there’s much to get one’s teeth into, very much in the angry-young-man mode at times but not exactly derivative while paying more than a nod to subsequent rough’n’ready folk-troubadour leanings. Unfortunately, this gambit sometimes also goes too far and there’s a sense of the trying-too-hard, the over-obvious statements permeating Will’s thought-processes, expounded in a kind of excessively “knowing” clubbishness that trades insight for political posturing and cheap namechecking (as on I Got This Email); better perhaps is The Self Checkout Shuffle, a justified rant in the approved Subterranean Homesick mould. Will arguably strikes the best compromise and balance of perspective on songs like Weddings And Wars and the economic, if darker, vision of Down The Well.

The emphatic rawness of the production and backdrops is also a key element in the impact of Will’s music, and although various guest musicians’ fiddle, saw, mandolin and accordion and percussion all make appearances the predominant aural image is Will’s own rough-hewn voice and continually busy guitar. There may well be even better songs to come from Will in the future – I wonder, should he now reflect more and curb his nomadic tendencies to sharpen his more poetic gifts, or should he set off on his travels anew? The jury’s still out here I guess.

www.willvarley.com

David Kidman


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Chris Corrigan – THE CROOKED MOUNTAIN ROAD (Own Label CCCD002

Liverpool-born Chris was playing piano and violin from an early age; on later moving to Armagh with his family he took up traditional fiddle then took a degree in sound recording, working in Co Cork with many noted traditional Irish musicians. His debut CD The Shadowed Gateway was released in 2006, and featured the talents of a selection of fine players including Liz Doherty, Úna Monaghan, Jim Woods, Ivan Goff and Andrew Holdsworth. Giving a sense of continuity, the last two named also appear on The Crooked Mountain Road, which was recorded at the Sonic Arts Research Centre at Queen’s University Belfast, where Chris is based as Technical Manager of the School Of Creative Arts (that also means audio engineering is his speciality).

And yes, it is a consciously studio creation, stylistically possibly best described as Irish-symphonic, wherein tunes that are very obviously of or inspired by Irish tradition are played straight by the lead instrument (which is often principally – although not exclusively – Chris’s own fiddle), and transmuted, fused with experimental or other influences (classical and jazz especially) in creative counterpoint, with conscious arrangement (rather than free improvisation) being the key. The vast majority of the tunes are of Chris’s own devising, and he clearly has the gift for recreating the authentic idiom, even while there’s also a whiff of Percy Grainger in some of the paraphrases and jolly keyboard stepping (eg on The Nip Is Upon Me).

Chris is a fluid and expressive fiddle player, coaxing an attractive, rounded and full tone from his instrument, and he is evidently equally comfortable with his lead role and with steering his support crew. He also demonstrates a kinship with Scandinavian music in his sensitive phrasing on a beautiful wedding waltz by Esko Järvelä and a halling by Maria Jonsson. The level of invention on all of his repertoire, however, is such that it’s not easy to get bored with this all-instrumental album, for Chris and his fellow musicians cleverly vary the textures to maintain interest and progression of elements within. The dominant richness of timbre is largely down to the prominence of Andrew’s piano (and sometimes bass or electric guitar) within the soundscape, although Ivan’s uilleann pipes and flute are also used well and some intriguing cameo effects are provided by the imaginative use of electronics (specifically, MiSS – ie. modular sound sculpture) or trombone (Agein’), although it does very occasionally feel there’s too much going on in the soundscape to be able to concentrate quite on everything that you might need to. Finally, after the exertions of Diggin’, Easin’ brings the album to a relaxing and reposeful close.

If you respond to interesting treatments of tunes composed in the tradition and are prepared to open your mind to a gentle and accommodating degree of fusion, sufficiently adventurous in scope without you worrying about anything too demanding, discordant or cutting-edge emanating from your speakers, then The Crooked Mountain Road departs just far enough from the strictly straight and narrow to provide listening satisfaction. It’s classy and atmospheric, with a predominantly tranquil, relaxing mood, and surprisingly accessible without ever frightening the horses.

www.chriscorrigan.ie

David Kidman


Return to the Reviews Contents Page Ange Hardy – BARE FOOT FOLK (Story Records AHBFF001)

Ange may well tread bare foot, and this her second studio album may itself tread similarly bare-footed in terms of setting, arrangement and mode of delivery – just voice and guitar for the most part – but it’s an extremely persuasive record that celebrates the basic, unashamed old-fashioned but timeless virtues of fine singing and good honest original songwriting, here entirely unadulterated by any unnecessary instrumentation or intrusive studio gimmicks. And yet it sounds anything but bare, very rich in fact, which is quite an achievement! Ange hails from Somerset, and is barely approaching her 30th year, yet her writing displays a compelling combination of youthful vigour and perception with a wholly natural command of the folk idiom and a telling maturity of approach. Bare Foot Folk is a truly refreshing set, whose 14 songs clock in at under 40 minutes in total and yet run a strikingly broad gamut of subject matter and mood. With Bare Foot Folk, Ange has created above all else an album of stories, many with the common theme of loss. These transport us through a varied series of scenarios and viewpoints; some, like Forlorn Land and Mother Willow Tree, deal with moral issues, and Waste Wanting is a desperately wistful, though lyrical reflection, whereas the disc’s central triptych is a linked set with the common theme of the sea and its dangers, and Stop Your Crying, Son is a charming nursery-lullaby. Ange’s assured and acute sense of melody is distinctly informed by that of traditional song, as the spooky allegory of The Ghost On The Moors, the chilling a cappella ballad White As Snow and the tale of unrequited love It Can’t Be So all well demonstrate, while humour’s not forgotten either (Crafty Father John). The album closes with the beautiful Heaven Waits, another knowing reflection on the acceptance of loss, which the air of an authentic (almost Carter-esque) country-gospel song. Ange’s songs are enchanting without being twee, and earnest without being po-faced or mannered, and Ange achieves a consistency of invention without predictability of expression. As far as performance style goes, her delicate, melodic and economic guitar accompaniment provides all you need, with never an extraneous note or noodle, while her singing voice is entirely natural, with abundantly clear diction, a good range and smooth coordination of timbre, and is tenderly expressive without a trace of artifice. Her only concession to studio production is the fairly frequent augmentation of her voice with her own uncannily effective (and quite “angelic” – pun intended!) harmonies. All of which adds up to a spellbinding little gem of a disc that positively invites you to play it over again from the start, in its entirety.

www.angehardy.com

David Kidman


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The Band – LIVE AT THE ACADEMY OF MUSIC 1971 (Capitol/Universal)

It’s widely accepted that The Band, from their humble Hawks beginnings to being Bob Dylan’s backing crew when he dared to “go electric”, subsequently became in effect the inventors of the very notion of Americana. And that’s not an extravagant claim, as regular followers of this website will readily acknowledge. So, with that as a given, this review will concentrate on nitty-gritty considerations and questions to which the devotees will doubtless want answers before taking the decision on whether to purchase this latest addition to The Band’s recorded catalogue.

Fact is, this rather plainly titled new release is destined straightway for the best-seller racks and “reissue of the year” nominations, no question. If you were, like me, one of those fans who’s always voted Rock Of Ages one of the greatest live albums of all time, and had embraced the 2001 (expanded-to-two-discs) remastered CD edition of the original 1972 double-disc (vinyl) set as the final word on the subject, then Live At The Academy Of Music 1971 will just have to satisfy everyone but the most rabid Band completist. It presents what amounts to a lavish house-extension (one of those that doesn’t need planning permission!), but it’s actually quite a bit more than that, more like a knock-down-and-rebuild of the original dwelling with a spanking new one built onto the side, fitted out with all the mod-cons standard nowadays. The 2001 reissue was fabulous, simply because it made available a whole album-full of (ten) previously unreleased tracks taken from the same series of gigs – the four legendary year-end concerts The Band gave in 1971 at New York City’s Academy Of Music. But however fine the discs sounded, especially in the running order that The Band themselves had elected to follow for the LP issue (completely changed from the actual set-lists performed on the nights), there’s always been a residual nagging feel of incompleteness. Especially since, although the two discs then comprised what the compiler judged the best versions of each song performed over the four nights, the multi-track recordings of two of the 29 songs (Strawberry Wine and Smoke Signal) were thought to have “mysteriously disappeared”.

So the newly expanded edition, stretching to four discs in total, will represent the most complete edition thus far for, while it doesn’t give us all four concerts in their entirety in their original set-list sequence, what it does do is present – on the second pair of discs – the entire New Year’s Eve gig in its correct sequence, as one continuous performance, in the soundboard mix, uncut and unedited, taken straight from the master recordings. Discs 1 and 2 differ significantly from their counterparts on both the original vinyl set and the 2001 CD reissue, in that all 29 of the songs performed are now represented, including the two previously missing songs; the set is shorn only of the brief speech introducing the mighty Allen Toussaint New Orleans-flavoured horn section that was ceremoniously brought onto stage for each night’s second set. Although the running order here is distinctly different from that of either previous reissue, the whole sequence is edited to run through and thus sound more like a complete performance than hitherto. However, individual song performances from all four nights of the tour are used here, and (as opposed to the earlier reissue) credited accordingly and correctly. However, this leads me to wonder whether the 11 tracks listed as being taken from the 31st December show – which of course climaxed with a four-song encore-finale on which Bob Dylan made a (then rare) surprise guest appearance – have all been duplicated (albeit in a non-soundboard mix) from those already included as part of the complete show on Discs 3 and 4; the fact that Discs 1 & 2 are being released as a stand-alone edition makes me think this to be the case.

Finally, one extra consideration, but one which won’t necessarily sway prospective purchasers of this new collection, is that the fullest edition also includes a deluxe 48-page hardbound book with several previously unseen photos, a repro review and essays-cum-appreciations by Robbie Robertson, Mumford & Sons and Jim James, together with a fifth (DVD) disc that presents the music from Discs 1 and 2 in 5.1 Surround plus filmed performances of two of the songs.

Whatever, though, I’d judge the four discs’ worth of music essential – with the only caveat that surely it would have made more sense to release discs 3 and 4 separately than the revamped discs 1 & 2, purely for their greater sales potential. If ever any concert in the illustrious history of rock deserved legendary status, then That New Year’s Eve concert from The Band vintage 1971 would fit the bill, period. It might have “winged it” at times, but the sense of unbridled joy allied to brilliantly muscular, passionate and edge-of-the-seat white-heat music-making from a crack team at the top of their game is so incredibly powerful. It was truly one of Those moments in time.

David Kidman


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Troubadour Rose – FIND AN ARROW (Clubhouse CRUK0018CD)

Troubadour Rose is a London-based folk-roots trio who over the course of their four-year-so-far existence have also been a five-piece, and even as a trio they make a persuasively full sound. They’re blessed with a particularly strong lead singer (Bryony Afferson, who’s also the outfit’s songwriter), but backing vocalist Lizzy O’Connor makes a notable and prominent contribution to the characteristic group blend which displays a distinctive dynamic through the confident and deployment of the colourings of violin (Gary Bridgewood), banjo/mandolin/piano (Lizzy) and guitar (Bryony), subtly enhanced by occasional percussion.

I guess you could say that Troubadour Rose inhabit an attractive crossover territory midway between folk and old-time, but the feel of their songs is more Emmylou, Union Jill, Carrivick Sisters or contemporary nu-folk/acoustic than traditionally inclined. The trio’s combined style is informed by the individual members’ influences, sure, but the whole – and the group identity – is here definitely greater than the sum of the constituent parts. Bryony’s delivery is thrilling, and possesses definite shades of Stevie Nicks (she grew up listening to Fleetwood Mac and P.J. Harvey as well as Nanci Griffith), while Lizzy’s grounding was more in the arena of traditional Irish music and Gary’s was even wilder (klezmerites Beskydy and subversive pop/jazz band The Real Tuesday Weld); the explosive potential of this kind of cocktail is reined in for Troubadour Rose, yet there’s no shortage of energy in the performances. Even so, the vital, urgent, very-much-forefront quality of the music-making, and the busy quality of the vocal lines, tend to mildly obscure the eloquent darkness of the message in Bryony’s often quite delicate self-penned stories; this imparts an occasional elusiveness to the overall picture that’s hard to escape. Thorny and also nomadic in its tendencies, as the band name might betoken – if that’s not stretching too much of a literal point.

It would, however, be good to have just a few more clues; and to that end, the disc’s bland and uninformative packaging is rather unhelpful (although lyrics to four of the eleven album’s tracks can be found on the band’s website). But the impact of Troubadour Rose’s music is instant, and certainly addictive. www.troubadourrose.com

David Kidman


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Emily Herring – YOUR MISTAKE (Turquoise Earring, no catalogue number)

Emily sounds like she couldn’t have come from anywhere but Texas, and kicking her album off with the stall-setting anthem Austin (Ain’t Got No) City Limits sounds like the only natural thing to do. Straight-down-the-line, tough, no-frills gutsy honky-tonk of the old school, with a bold, high-twanging, brilliantly authentic swagger of a singing style that echoes right down the past 50 years, starting out like she means business then won’t go anywhere else (and no, you can’t imagine her fallin’ asleep at the wheel…!).

The title track comes next, one of those admonitory ditties in the approved fashion, and is swiftly followed by Prairie Lea, a sweet-toned tale of homecoming, and Turquoise Earrings, a strident midtempo ballad. And so it continues for nigh on 40 minutes, with self-penned song after song of classy quality, delivered with a punchy, raw, almost punk sensibility that takes no prisoners, as I said means business and refuses point blank to compromise. Hard to pick out highlights, but With This In Mind, One Sip Of Water and especially that title number all have the timeless feel of barroom classics, and are put across with typical hard-won confidence. Even so, Emily seems to excel herself on the gritty bluesy closer One Steals The Load. Emily’s rock-solid backing crew are excellent, right behind her all the way, framing her honest’n’true “wanna holler” yodel with some tremendous lead guitar, pedal steel, dobro, bass and drums brewing up a neat ol’ storm way beyond the call of mere sessioners. Emily’s got a lot of home truths to sing about, and the odd track might sometimes come across as a bit of a soapbox, but hey she deserves to have you for her captive audience, and you can’t help but find her stance totally likeable and ride out there in sympathy. After all, “if it ain’t worth saying, it ain’t worth singin’!”"…

Now, right at the end of the playthrough, I glance over Emily’s biog, check out some background and discover she’s gay – well ok, so what? Should it matter? Hell, not to me. (And it might seem a bit of a cliché to namecheck kd lang, with whose early records it’s entirely possible to hear a musical kinship within Emily’s singing.) Even so, I’d imagine that even in this enlightened age it can still be kinda tough, especially in redneck territory. But Emily’s sure got the chops for staying alive in a hostile climate, and music is always the best possible kind of calling-card as a survival strategy too.

www.emilyherring.net

David Kidman


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THE SHREWSBURY FOLK FESTIVAL 2013

It was my first year at The Shrewsbury Folk Festival. I had heard great things, I expected great things, and I was not disappointed!

The programme for this year's festival was so jammed-packed with music, dance and other events that I was not alone in having to choose carefully what I was going to do. I chose to concentrate on music so I didn't get to any of the dance events, which this year were mainly ceilidh, and I only heard good things about them from other festival goers.

The festival was host to some interesting bands that I heard for the first time. Barnstar are everything I expected from a modern bluegrass band; a banjo, fiddle, mandolin, double bass, some natty suits and an impressive moustache. These guys started their set with I Think We're Alone Now, the 80s classic by Tiffany, then turned to more traditional bluegrass cover songs, and finished on the self-penned Charlottesville.

Bright Pheobus is the much-anticipated project led by Jon Boden involving people such as Roy Bailey, Martin Simpson, Sam Sweeney and Fay Hield singing songs by Tom Waits. For me, the stand-out performance of this mele was Nancy Kerr's duet with Jon Boden, Whistle Down The Wind. Kerr's voice soared and we heard yet another facet of Jon Boden, this time on the guitar.

Colvin Quarmby are a Midlands-based band whose frontman has the stage persona of an over-excited naughty schoolboy. It is true that the between-song-jokes risked outnumbering the songs the band actually performed, but the songs are well-worth waiting for, taking the audience on a rollercoaster of emotion. The House Of The Setting Sun, about Care In The Community, was poignant and silenced the venue. Lying On Our Backs Watching Feathers From Angels is beautiful, while livelier tracks such as One More Week drew a cheer and audience participation.

As always, the Oysterband charmed the crowd and played popular tracks, from their feminist The Oxford Girl to songs of friendship, If You Can't Be Good Be Lucky and Meet You There. Of course we miss Ray Cooper, aka Chopper, but the Oysterband have always evolved. A sign of their longevity, John Jones jumped down from the stage and climbed over a barrier to sing in the 'mosh pit', only to find he couldn't do the same in reverse. On his way backstage, the frontman ran past me saying, "I can't get back up!"

The festival was a weekend of revelations for me. The first was Steve Knightley's solo performance. Without the accompaniment of his guitar to distract me from his vocals of The Galway Farmer, I realised the true depth of Knightley's vocal talents for the first time. The second revelation I had was the reason why Van Morrison calls James McNally of The Afro Celt Sound System 'The Master'. Throughout the Afro Celts' set the camera focussed mainly on McNally, so I watched the big screen as the multi-musician moved between his sound system to playing the Irish flute, to a whistle, to a guitar, to a bodhran, to singing and back to operating the sound system while playing the flute one-handed! McNally was mesmorising to watch, working hard non-stop throughout the set to produce great music.

My 'find of the festival' and recommendation is Lady Maisery. These three young ladies have been performing for several years under different guises, but this was the first time I have seen them together. The venue experienced a power cut and so Hannah James, Rowan Rheingans and Hazel Askew performed mainly acappella, with Rheinghans occasionally playing the fiddle and Askew a harp. Hannah James is known as one of the best clog dancers in the UK and was astounding to watch when she danced out the beat of two songs. Lady Maisery sound a little like Medieval Baebes with sweeping, dreamlike vocals, yet are unique, blending traditional folk styles with their own modern twist. They received a standing ovation from the entire audience. Their new album, Mayday, is out now.

A strong feature of The Shrewsbury Folk Festival is The Village Stage where musicians and morris dancers of all ages performed to a sizeable audience, surrounded by stalls selling men's and women's clothing, jewellery and other crafted goods, as well as the children's circus skills area.

This friendly festival was well-organised, with specified areas for camper vans and motor homes, as well as a designated area close to the main venues for disabled people, complete with suitable toilets and showers. There was plenty of seating for eating meals, reading, chatting, or for groups to get together and play instruments. With a capacity of 6000, most of the pathways tarmac'd, the good conditions of the toilets and the fact that all the venues were seated venues, this was a comfortable festival to attend.

This was my first year at The Shrewsbury Folk Festival and it won't be my last!

Catherine Hume


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Erica Buettner – TRUE LOVE AND WATER (Peppermoon Music PM001)

Erica is an American singer-songwriter in her late-20s; originally from Connecticut, she’s now based in Portugal, but between these points she’d lived in Paris for a while studying French and literature. There she met producer Pierre Faa and recorded True Love And Water, her impressive and intriguing debut album. Interestingly, there’s a distinct European-bohemian feel to the record, which is not only attributable to the use of Parisian musicians for backing but also due to the fragile lyrical beauty of Erica’s words. The floaty waltz-time elusiveness and spookily delicate café accordion ambience of six-minute disc opener Time Travelling gives way to the Leonard Cohen-esque rhythms, opaque references and tender thrills of the album’s title track, with sparse, distant but eerily present keyboard counterpoint to Erica’s own rippling guitar figures. Her clanking banjo and kantele then take their swirling turn around the dance floor on Under The Radar, which cryptically explores the borderline-surreal might-have-been of “I liked you better the way you almost were”, while When It Goes comes in the nature of a health warning for how we treat our spiritual and physical environments. There’s a tinge of Laurie Anderson quirkiness on Body Electric, which builds then tingles with the sudden frisson of the disc’s only appearance of drums. That bristling moment aside, Erica’s melodies are unusual, poignant and somehow (I really don’t know why or how) shot through with a pungent aura of antiquity, while seeming unsure about their key centre or ultimate destination; and yet, like her lyrics, they make ultimate, intimate sense, rather like a dream from which you gradually awaken and coax a meaning (which in the end may not be the right one). Erica’s gently swooning, caressing voice weaves a special kind of magic around and out of her own instrumental accompaniment and the attendant lines and often subliminal layerings from clarinet, cello, bass and keyboards. There’s a hauntingly intangible quality to Erica’s music, for it seems to be constantly shifting and sliding out of your grasp, often tantalisingly out of reach but just within comprehension (the jaunty Arctic Dogs takes her vision almost too literally, as does the sinister No Land’s Man). It’s intensely addictive, very original, and pretty much unlike any other singer-songwriter album – and yes, in its own peculiar way it demands to be investigated.

www.ericabuettner.com

David Kidman


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Jacqui McShee’s Take Three – JACQUI McSHEE’S TAKE THREE (JAG Records T3001)

It’s all of eight years since Jacqui’s last album release, the expansive full-band excursion into Feoffee’s Lands, and the long silence since then has enabled Jacqui to reconsider her approach to ten songs she’s enjoyed playing over the years, four of these being traditional songs that have been in Jacqui’s repertoire in previous incarnations of Pentangle (Once I Had A Sweetheart and The House Carpenter both appeared on arguably the band’s finest album, Basket Of Light, while Turn Your Money Green cropped up on Sweet Child and Will The Circle Be Unbroken on Reflection). Two further songs (Blackwaterside and Nottamun Town) have been recorded here in direct tribute to Bert Jansch, founder member of Pentangle (with whom they were closely associated) who, sadly, died just a couple of years ago.

The full band has been scaled down drastically for this latest project. Supported simply by just two trusted musicians – percussionist Gerry Conway and guitarist Alan Thomson – Jacqui’s peerless singing voice glides beautifully and effortlessly through refreshing, gently expressive new takes on familiar material; and yet familiarity never breeds contempt, for Jacqui’s respect for her sources is always very much apparent in the loving way with which she caresses and moulds her phrasing. This is perhaps most especially noticeable on the songs which are given a more jazzy (in the sense of smoky late-night club) feel, like Willow Weep For Me, Turn Your Money Green and most especially the breathy standard We’ll be Together Again, but no amount of emotional power is sacrificed by this approach, and an altogether different dimension is brought to more traditionally-inclined repertoire like The House Carpenter (less mystical now, perhaps, but equally compelling in its new guise and not underplaying the sense of developing drama in the narrative), a cautiously animated Nottamun Town and a kinda slow-poke take on Will the Circle Be Unbroken (which now encompasses something of a chunky Ry Cooder vibe).

The magically intimate and creatively restrained nature of Gerry and Alan’s intensely accomplished accompaniments is miraculous, deft and responsive while fully supportive of the demands of both the material and, so crucially, of Jacqui’s unfolding vocal interpretations. Here, this intimate ensemble Take Three (aptly named, of course, after the late-60s TV drama series Take Three Girls for which Pentangle provided the chart-hit theme tune) provide an absolute model of how to bring something fresh and special to time-worn material, this is a record of truly exquisite performances, the stuff of which sweet dreams are made indeed. There’s nowt not to like…

www.pentangle.info

David Kidman


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Lady Maisery – MAYDAY (RootBeat RBRCD19)

I was captivated big-time by this relatively newly constituted female trio (Hazel Askew, Hannah James and Rowan Rheingans) when they released their exceptional debut CD Weave And Spin almost exactly two years ago. These young ladies have so much going for them – not just in respect of their brilliant vocal expertise (and spine-tingling combination of timbres, individual voices and intuitive harmonies), but also in their unerringly prescient sense of exactly when to accompany, with deliberately spare instrumentation and with exactly the right colours, and in their highly original, and invariably strikingly imaginative, approach to the reinterpretation of sometimes overtly familiar source material.

Mayday is a typically enterprisingly titled collection, in that it draws thematically on three specific meanings of the word: a distress signal, a celebration of springtime and International Workers’ Day. Its songs thus chronicle a diversity of human struggles: struggles which may either lament personal tragedies to expose a wider social injustice, or else revel in the triumph of the human spirit – or, quite often (as in the feisty Katy Cruel) combine both aspects in celebrating the power of gender or class, while even the portrayal of the progress of nature itself within folk culture doesn’t come without its warnings.

From Rowan’s lilting banjo intro I was almost expecting The False Young Man to become October Song, but then in come some luscious vocal harmonies that set the neck hairs prickling, while Hazel’s concertina and Hannah’s accordion provide so much more than telling counterpoint to the expression of the text. In fact, the vocal harmonies here and on several other places during the course of the album strongly hint of Lady Maisery having taken direct inspiration from The Roches (and then, what do I see but a direct namecheck for that very combo within the digipack’s liner notes, albeit in the alternate context of the source for one particular song on the album).

For an ensemble with such pronounced individual and collective vocal talents, it’s almost indecent that they’re all such capable instrumentalists too, but so it proves in the characterful and unusual settings they employ as backdrops – just listen to the spellbinding harp-and-fiddle arrangement on The Great Selkie, for instance, or the chilling scythe-swinging rhythms and drones which accompany The Crow On The Cradle. And the plaintive fiddle and insistent harp-bass that propel Kate Bush’s This Woman’s Work, itself an especially inspired choice for the album. Just occasionally, I felt that some of the innovative non-vocal effects (such as The Factory Girl’s invocation of the rhythm of machinery via the clatter of foot-percussion and the whine of fiddle), may in time come to prove a touch distracting on repeated hearing, but such gambits certainly make an impact and show the trio to be formidably creative interpreters of their carefully chosen material.

But it’s undeniably the Lady Maisery voices that will first and foremost catch the ear. The trio’s a cappella unison rendition of the Child ballad from which they take their own name is stark and unemotional and packs its own emotional punch nevertheless, involving the listener completely over its 6½-minute span. At the other temporal extreme, their considered harmony arrangement of Let No Man Steal Your Thyme is every bit as masterly in its very economy of expression, while their intricate weaving of parts on Leon Rosselson’s tricky Palaces Of Gold sees them rise to the song’s considerable interpretive and technical challenges with distinction. The disc’s ten songs are supplemented by a spirited return to the art of diddling (the singing of tunes) which so enchanted listeners on Weave And Spin, and here is brought to bear on the apposite pairing of the morris tune Constant Billy with Andy Letcher’s pipe tune The Lie Of The Land.

This is a stunning-sounding (and stunningly mature) album, make no mistake, and a 100% cert contender for the year’s top-ten listings.

www.ladymaisery.com

David Kidman


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Jim White – WHERE IT HITS YOU (Loose VJCD196)

The title of Jim’s latest album is indicative, most particularly of his perilous emotional state during its writing and making, a period in which his wife left him for a younger man. But the resultant devastation is not wholly apparent from the sound of the record, for its tenor is as boldly imaginative, its modus-operandi as mind-stretchingly diverse as his earlier output, with quirkiness in abundance despite the often highly personal nature of the lyrics. Even so, we find Chase The Dark Away opening proceedings in a haunted, bleak and lonesome manner, almost evoking the ghost of Lou Reed which appears from time to time thereafter, notably on later songs like the lazy drawling whispersome Sunday’s Refrain. The oddball pair of songs Infinite Mind and What Rocks Will Never Know shuffle along companionably around mid-disc, but their impact is negated by the fluffy funk of Here We Go, which seems vapid and does the disc as a whole no favours. After which things pick up with the epic My Brother’s Keeper, where the spoken prelude is permeated with the spirit of Jim Morrison, which then collapses in the burning desert sun. In contrast, on the ensuing That Wintered Blue Sky – a standout cut – Jim brings the landscape scarily into focus in depicting its chilling effect on the protagonist via some startling imagery and eerie instrumental effects. The dark depths of Jim’s personal situation are reflected in the melancholy duet on the penultimate track Epilogue To A Marriage (even though the title came after the song was written), where it’s almost a miracle that he manages to voice his feelings at all. The disc then clinks off somewhat inconclusively with Why It’s Cool. So, once again, as at every stage of his career, Jim is able to make a virtue out of eccentricity, while remaining musically and lyrically credible – quite a skill that – although on Where It Hits You Jim’s soul-baring is also elevated to a whole new level of brave expression, which is why it might yet be considered to be one of his best albums to date.

www.jimwhite.net

David Kidman


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Pharis & Jason Romero – LONG GONE OUT WEST BLUES (Lula 1303)

This one’s taken nigh on three months to reach me, but it sure was most eagerly awaited after my being so impressed with the husband-and-wife duo’s previous album The Passing Glimpse, an outstanding example of deep Americana which won them widespread recognition far beyond their home stamping-ground of rural Horsefly in British Columbia.

When reviewing that earlier album, I found it almost impossible to resist at least some degree of comparison with Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, but that’s not entirely fair either. Sure, there’s the (at times) slightly morose feel, the uncannily empathic personal closeness, the intimacy in the vocal delivery, the keen interleaving of guitar and banjo parts, all of which qualities draw on the back-porch music-maker template – and yet Pharis and Jason can be heard to inhabit a spiritual dimension all their own. Sure, there are also (perhaps inevitably) clear hints of classic Carter Family expressiveness with fine solo and sibling-duo harmony singing and simple but effective accompanimental gestures, but again the Romeros make these key inspirations their own and build on them to make their own tradition.

Further evidence for this is the sheer timeless quality of their own songwriting (five of the disc’s 13 tracks were penned by Pharis herself, while one more was co-written joint with Jason, who himself composed the idiomatic banjo tune Lost Lula). There’s not a weak cut among them, and highlights include the reassuring Come On Home and the forlorn I Want To Be Lucky and The Little Things Are Hardest In The End. Outside of these entirely authentic-sounding own-compositions, which have the effect of binding the album together, the couple place their own stamp on a number of traditional pieces which, though drawn from sources as diverse as Bessie Jones & Hobart Smith (It Just Suits Me, which appears on a Lomax recording in Rounder’s iconic Southern Journey series), and Riley Puckett (Waiting For The Evening Mail, which occurs on an old 78). The Romeros’ keen new retelling of Wild Bill Jones was hugely influenced by both Dock Boggs and Bruce Molsky.

It could easily be said that Long Gone Out West Blues is self-evidently another prime cut from the same beast as its predecessor, but the couple’s musical signature is indelibly etched and the wellspring of their invention shows no sign of running dry. And by the way, the digipack’s presentation, notably the booklet within, is just so beautifully designed; it’s clearly a work of art, rather like Jason’s self-built banjos and resophonic guitar, which conjoin so happily with Pharis’s 1937 Martin. A glorious record!

www.pharisandjason.com

David Kidman


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Various Artists – WAY TO BLUE: THE SONGS OF NICK DRAKE (Navigator 080)

Iconic singer-songwriter Nick’s untimely suicide was one of music’s biggest tragedies. Joe Boyd, who as producer was closely associated with Nick’s original recordings, has here chosen to celebrate Nick’s songwriting achievement by gathering together a number of singers (none of whom sound like Nick) to perform their own individual cover versions of Nick’s songs. The result is very probably less a direct tribute in the normal sense than a process of rediscovery of the songs, and the chosen singers provide some unique insights, if not always quite matching the elusive quality of the writing.

The core “company” assembled by Boyd was taken on tour, recordings from two of the venues having been trawled for this CD. Five of the fifteen songs are sourced from performances at a BBC live concert at London’s Barbican in January 2010, the rest from Melbourne’s Elizabeth Murdoch Hall in November of that year. Ostensibly this gives us the best of both worlds, although it must be noted that the Australian dates feature two of that country’s own acts; the duo Luluc (Zoe Rendell and Steve Hassett) perform three songs (Things Behind The Sun, Fly and Saturday Sun), while Shane Nicholson tackles Poor Boy and Rider On The Wheel. It’s a shame that the remaining seven or eight of the covered songs from the BBC concert haven’t been included (my memory of viewing the BBC4 transmission recalls in particular a magical rendition of Way To Blue for which room surely could have been made on this CD), but there’s no question that the disc does include some of the most notable interpretations of the whole project. Lisa Hannigan’s mesmeric, wild-eyed droning on the bleak Black Eyed Dog, Krystle Warren’s ultra-soulful version of Time Has Told Me, Green Gartside’s telling rendition of Fruit Tree, Robyn Hitchcock’s evocative take on Parasite, and Teddy Thompson’s gliding River Man all spring immediately to mind as highlights. I also rather liked Vashti Bunyan’s unassuming rendition of Which Will and Scott Matthews’ When Day Is Done. The accompanying instrumental complement is superb, including among its ranks Danny Thompson and Neill MacColl, in addition to a string ensemble playing impeccable, sensitive and genuinely inspired arrangements by Kate St. John (who also plays cor anglais, oboe and accordion and contributes some backing vocals). Pianist Zoe Rahman also plays a key role, although I find her florid stylings a touch over-dominant although I can admire her technical and intuitive skills (she turns in a virtuoso instrumental duet treatment, with Danny T, of One Of These Things First).

All in all, it’s hard to imagine Nick Drake fans being at all disappointed with these affectionate and well considered covers, although it’s always going to prove impossible to please the most diehard purists among them. Myself, I think it does Nick’s memory proud.

www.navigatorrecords.co.uk

David Kidman


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The Resident Cards – WE WON’T LEAVE ANY TRACE (Own Label, no catalogue number

An unprepossessing name for a thoroughly charming duo, and a seemingly somewhat inappropriate title for a seriously haunting record that leaves plenty of trace – at least, in the mind of this listener. The music it contains is also pretty original, as much as it is also rather beautiful.

Erica Buettner and Dana Boulé, renegades from the musical worlds of folk and punk respectively, met by chance in Paris, having both moved there a few years ago from their native America in order to pursue their musical careers. Classically-trained pianist Dana, who had already composed several film scores, released her own first solo album Going, Gone in 2009.

Earlier this year, Erica's own debut solo album True Love And Water was released, and I found it pretty compelling, albeit not quite as compelling as this current offering by The Resident Cards duo. Perhaps the main reason for this is the sublime vocal harmonies that are the duo’s hallmark, which are allied to quietly-configured, ethereal and tremendously hypnotic musical backdrops created from minimal resources (mostly just percussionist Boris Gronemberger, and on one track guitarist Matthew Bixby, comprising the only augmentation for Dana’s signature piano or accordion and Erica’s guitar). Although the disc’s eight tracks sport an entirely equal distribution of writing credits (four apiece for both Dana and Erica), the two ladies’ performing personality is even more like that of a two-headed beast with an entirely symbiotic body, their voices entwining and trailing around velvet cushioned melodic lines, with strangely cryptic lyrics that chronicle their poetic journeys into and through self-awareness, and the resolute impermanence of that state, equally strangely appropriately conveyed. It’s virtually impossible to describe, but the intimate closeness of their musical world (on songs like Lie To Me and Parisian Clouds) might best recall the more inward-looking moments of those early Roches albums as much as anything else you’re likely to have encountered, with tender harmonic excursions (on tracks like Pyramids) that hark back to the glory days of CS&N. The opening mantra of Gotta Shed The Old Skin contrasts with the insouciant, almost tuneless whistling that closes the finale Let’s Get Out Of This Town; but the weirdest track of all just has to be Where’d You Go?, which jars the airwaves with seriously disturbed shrieking and unearthly sampled “sounds from outer space” (yes, really!).

I guess the last word on the record might well be left to a quote from the aptly-worded press release, which describes We Won’t Leave Any Trace as “an album dedicated to all the courageous fish(es) out of water everywhere, songs for emigrants and immigrants of geography and spirit”. It fair makes those of us of determinedly maverick taste very much feel at home.

www.theresidentcards.wordpress.com

David Kidman


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Union Jill – RESPECTABLE REBELLION (Union Jill Music UJMCD0113)

Union Jill is a Yorkshire-based duo comprising Sharon Winfield and Helen Turner, whose close musical partnership, formerly known as Two, has already produced a pair of increasingly accomplished singer-songwriter albums with an attractive enhanced-acoustic flavour. The recent name change heralds and reflects an increase in confidence in their own identity as a writing and performing unit, a union in more senses than hitherto with an even more pronounced sense of togetherness and unity of purpose. And in terms of sound alone, it’s a marked step forward, with a very classy, polished, consciously-produced and -arranged (and thoroughly tasteful) demeanour of which at first acquaintance (coming to it from the Two standpoint) I wasn’t quite sure whether it always worked, even though it maintains a well-proportioned “fairly big live band” feel rather than that of a self-conscious studio product. It’s not exactly that my ear was distracted by the highly assured production and altogether fuller settings (courtesy of Clive Gregson and John Wood, no less!), except in a nice way (for there’s a hell of a lot of captivating detail therein) – but I did find it harder to concentrate on the lyrics of some very fine new songs that were initially kind-of struggling just a bit to rise above (or through) the richly textured instrumentation, despite the continued power of the girls’ well-upholstered vocal harmonies. What does still come through, however, is the strong sense of unity that Sharon and Helen embrace artistically: their symbiotic approach to storytelling that makes the songs appear to have come from one mind rather than two individual writers even as a team. Further unity also stems from the girls’ adoption (for much of the album) of a common theme – that of the portrayal of (predominantly female) characters from history or folklore who are invariably overlooked in the grander scheme of things but who clearly still have valid and interesting tales to tell – from the ghostly presence of Mad Alice to the feisty suffragette of Queen Of Holloway, the unfortunate stabbing victim Kitty Genovese to the would-be-pilot of Trailblazer, and the nervous energy of the fated cockle-pickers of Morecambe Bay. The supporting musicians on this latter track are really alive-alive-O!; they include a fabulous appearance by Ric Sanders and a great Gregson guitar solo. But I’d not want to undersell the excellent rhythm section of Andy Seward and Mark Boyce, which throughout the disc moves effortlessly from gutsy backbone to subtle embellishment. The girls’ skill in evoking character extends also to some more generalised depictions of characters in specific situations, and even to character of place, as on Dunwich Bells, which eerily brings to life the aura of the doomed Suffolk town (one of the tracks to feature a compelling cor anglais contribution from Kate St John). I’m glad that the girls have included the lyrics in the CD booklet, for although their diction is always superbly clear there’s still that matter of the “busy” backings to consider, especially on the first half of the record. Folks coming to the girls’ music for the first time, though, may not even notice this issue and certainly wouldn’t think of it as a barrier to appreciation of the strength of their writing. Which is considerable, and consistent almost to a fault; for this reason, it’s not easy to pick out highlight tracks, and even though I find that the impact of each individual song is best savoured in isolation, the whole album makes for a satisfyingly cohesive sequential listen. It’s an important step for the girls, and marks them out as an impressively mature act who demand to be taken seriously (as indeed they have just by dint of securing the collaboration of so illustrious a coterie of fellow-musicians).

www.unionjill.org

David Kidman


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Garron Frith – AWAY FROM THE BRIGHT LIGHTS (Skiffler Recordings SR01)

Rootsy singer-songwriter Garron, from Stalybridge, is accumulating a healthy CV by dint of opening for the likes of Imelda May, Glenn Tilbrook, Peter Green and Midge Ure (a fair variety of sounds there!), and his latest CD builds on the promising impression created by his eponymous debut full-lengther of 2007. Away From The Bright Lights is a similarly soft-hued, precisely managed collection of self-penned songs with a warm acoustic base and deft, gentle accompaniment (guitars, lap steel, banjo, violin, bass, drums – musicians including Simon J. Alpin, who’d also contributed to Garron’s debut, and Cornershop’s Nick Simms). The Ray Lamontagne comparison I made on hearing Garron’s first album is every bit as noticeable this time round, to which I might well now also add early John Martyn (on numbers like Little Bird, The Remedy and This One in particular) and Gerry Rafferty (on Old Habits). There’s also some classic blues inspiration evident on the Mayall-like harmonica stomp of Pretty Penny and the resigned, gospel-style croon of Rolling The Dice. Yes, Away From The Bright Lights is a smooth triumph for Garron’s special, intimate brand of genial Americana-inflected songwriting: another satisfyingly accommodating, if mildly understated, grower of a record, which displays its trump card in placing delicacy of expression with strength of character.

www.garronfrith.co.uk

David Kidman


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Jez Hellard & The Djukella Orchestra – BLOOD AND HONEY (Djukella Records JDHCD001)

This eclectic disc from Northamptonshire-raised singer/troubadour Jez Hellard constitutes djukella in the literal sense – but although the word is a Balkan insult meaning “mongrel”, no insult can be intended here, for whatever the style or idiom, Jez proves an engaging and able interpreter. As indeed does his little Balkan-inspired support band, which comprises double-bassist Nye Parsons, accordionist Jordan Kostov, and two fiddlers Zoë Moffat and Cam Neufeld. No – the perceived difficulty for the listener is that for all his chameleon-like versatility and extreme expertise Jez seems musically restless, reluctant to concentrate on any one genre for long. I might reasonably compare him with Rory McLeod, with whom he seems to share not only a penchant for all kinds of folk and world musics but also a nimble virtuosity on the humble harmonica (in fact, Jez turns in a splendid cover of Rory’s jolly Miner’s Picket Dance here)…

However, as one playthrough of Blood And Honey will testify, Jez’s brand of eclecticism may confuse as much as it impresses. This may well be due to the fact that the recordings for the album are a diverse bunch drawn from various (mostly live) sources; three tracks are just Jez, voice and guitar, whereas the “small-band” tracks were recorded variously in Glastonbury, Macedonia, a King’s Cliffe pub and a Canadian living-room!

But let’s concentrate on the positives, which are here in abundance. The solo tracks deliver fine accounts of Nancy Kerr’s delightful Songbirds, the traditional Bonny Black Hare and – best of all – Woody Guthrie’s Remember The Mountain Bed (in one of the Wilco reworkings). Jez’s aptitude for traditional song is further demonstrated on Saucy Sailor, and his ability to interpret different modes of contemporary song is shown on Leon Rosselson’s biting commentary Mercenaries and Boo Hewerdine’s distinctly Guthrie-esque Harvest Gypsies. The instrumental tracks exhibit an appealing joie-de-vivre, and range from the Celtic show-offery of Catharsis to a sultry tango penned by fiddler Cam.

If you don’t think the musical mix is anything other than wild and wilful, then be prepared for a pleasant shock, for in spite of its overall disparity this turns out a surprisingly satisfying and curiously consistent album.

www.jezhellard.com

David Kidman


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Carrie Rodriguez – GIVE ME ALL YOU GOT (Ninth Street Opus NSO32)

Texas native Carrie, who started her career as a fiddler and singer, first came to our attention around a decade ago when performing with veteran fellow-songwriter Chip Taylor, since which time she’s released three solo albums in her own right, on which her own songwriting has taken an increasingly large share. Of the 11 tracks on Give Me All You Got, and discounting a funky instrumental version-cum-reprise of one of the songs, Carrie has had a compositional hand (either solo or jointly) in seven; the exceptions are two by her mentor Taylor (I Cry For Love and Cut Me Now) and a cover of Get Back In Love (penned by one of Carrie’s former collaborators Ben Kyle) – the latter, ironically, being one of the disc highlights purely in terms of performance quality. It may also be a coincidence that the most memorable of Carrie’s own compositions here are those which employ her trademark gloriously soaring fiddle sound, like the opener Devil In Mind. The mournful I Don’t Mind waiting, on which Carrie duets with co-writer Luke Jacobs, is another fiddle-rich highlight, while the penultimate track Brooklyn, a very much autobiographical relationship song, scores for the innate honesty of its lyric. These two songs in particular bode well for any possible further future development of Carrie’s (currently just occasional) songwriting partnership with her guitarist sideman Luke. Earlier on the disc, the slow-paced Tragic manages to survive its torchy refrain and make a good impression, largely due to Carrie’s expressive vocal sensuality, whereas the finger-snapping milieu of Lake Harriet, although attractive in itself, doesn’t seem to quite fit with the Americana leanings of the rest of this collection. Whatever, Carrie’s own band members (who, in addition to guitarist Luke, comprise Hans Holzen, Kyle Kegerreis, Erik Deutsch and Don Heffington), give her suitably idiomatic support at all times, and she evidently feels comfortable airing her newly-reignited songwriting talents in such company.

www.carrierodriguez.com

David Kidman


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Amelia Curran – SPECTATORS (Blue Rose Records BLU DP0593)

Based in north-eastern Canada (Halifax), Juno-award-winning singer-songwriter Amelia has followed up her acclaimed album Hunter Hunter with another compelling collection of quite disconsolate self-penned songs. Much in the vein of its predecessor, Spectators is a deeply sensitive and oddly sensuous album, its ten songs all characterised by Amelia’s heart-stoppingly tender vocals, musical arrangements that are subtle and minimal yet curiously rich, and predominantly slow-to-medium tempi which nevertheless have a keen sense of flow that counters any potential for stagnation. That doesn’t mean, of course, that all the tracks sound the same or even similar – far from it, for the shimmering yet sharply defined colours are constantly being varied in the tension of the undertow that reflects the mesmerising nature of Amelia’s poetry, within which the very meaning is often tantalisingly oblique or unsaid, at least in any literal or direct manner. Her private, caressing delivery ensures an intimate communication with the listener, for all that she’s inwardly restless and evidently preoccupied with detached thoughts of loss and the longing that it inevitably brings. From the delicate speculation of Years and the dark vision of The Modern Man through to the doom-laden What Will You Be Building? and the (quite literally) heartbreaking devastation of San Andreas Fault, the intense, mood-soaked production by John Critchley proves the perfect foil for Amelia’s intimate meditations, and the imaginative palette using either strings (Soft Wooden Towers and The Great Escape) or warm-toned horns – on What Will You Be Building? and In A Town (200 Days) – is really effective. A host of session players from the Toronto and St. John’s scenes are used sparingly to give exactly the right degree of substance to Amelia’s songs.

www.ameliacurran.com

David Kidman


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Various Artists - Folk Awards 2013 (Proper PROPERFOLK14) Every year I look forward to the chunky Folk Awards compilation, which gathers together tracks from artists nominated for that year’s BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. I normally review it before the Awards are announced, but this year has proved an exception, due to an unusually heavy workload. No matter, for whatever time is chosen for the task, the compilation will yield a satisfying near-couple-of-hours’ worth of listening, musicianship of a consistently high standard, and a fascinating “told-you-so” (or not!) hindsight’s-look-back at which artists made it to the gongs. It could be that some reorganisation of procedural matters associated with the Awards, together with the ceremony’s recent move away from London, have both contributed to the present year’s collection definitely having less of a same-old-faces feel to it generally – although some of the old favourites like Lau and Bellowhead are still very much around. And indeed Nic Jones – although there can surely be no charge against Nic (who beat off stiff competition from Karine Polwart, Jim Moray and Sam Lee for the Folk Singer Of The Year award), not least because his track is a brand new (previously unreleased) live rendition of Randy Newman’s Texas Girl At The Funeral Of Her Father, a matchlessly percipient interpretation that marks his return to performing and is virtually worth the price of the compilation on its own. There was also predictably fierce competition for the Best Duo award, and although my personal vote would’ve gone to O’Hooley & Tidow, I’d not quarrel with any of the nominations, and certainly not with the eventual recipients of the award, Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman – especially since their nominated Ballad Of Andy Jacobs didn’t win the Best Original Song category (that was deservedly won by Emily Portman, with her brilliant Hatchlings). Nobody can be unhappy with Kathryn Tickell winning the Musician Of The Year award either, although sadly it meant the more-than-worthy Duncan Chisholm missing out on both this award and that for Best Traditional Track. Other refreshing and welcome inclusions on the set include Maz O’Connor, Anaïs Mitchell, Kathleen MacInnes, the duos Hannah James & Sam Sweeney and Katriona Gilmore & Jamie Roberts and Scottish supergroup Treacherous Orchestra; OK, so none of these were award recipients in the end, but their inclusion on this set will accord them a healthier profile on the scene as a whole, which can never be a bad thing. However, it’s unfortunate that no fewer than four of the final Award recipients (Jim Moray, Aly Bain, Billy Bragg and Dougie MacLean, for Best Traditional Track, Lifetime Achievement Award, Roots Award and Lifetime Achievement Award For Contribution To Songwriting respectively) aren’t represented on this Proper set. Finally, the set’s format more or less follows last year’s; the first two discs of main Awards nominees consist primarily of tracks culled from those artists’ existing available recordings – the exceptions here being previously unreleased cuts by Nic Jones and Ross Ainslie – whereas disc three presents one track apiece from each of the ten Young Folk Award finalists, these being taken from recordings made at the nominees’ concert last October. Almost-inevitable overall winners Greg Russell & Ciaran Algar inevitably take pride of place, and Luke Jackson crops up too (good tho’ he is, perhaps it’s not entirely fair that he also appeared on disc two, methinks). Elsewhere, the mix of styles is almost as wide as can be, ranging from troubadour Jack Pout to the contrasted voices of singer/songwriter Rosie Hodgson and singer Mae Bradbury, The Crosstown Trio’s contemporary bluegrass-Americana, and talented tune merchants (Hugh Sheenan & Jack McCaugherty, Scottish band Thalla, duo Graham Mackenzie & Ciorstaidh Beaton, and, most impressively of all, solo fiddler Matt Tighe). While appreciating the many delights of the whole set and their relevance as a sampler for the cream of folk acts and the health of the folk scene, it’s becoming increasingly the case that disc three assumes the greatest importance over the course of the ensuing year. www.properdistribution.com

David Kidman


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Barbara Dickson – WORDS UNSPOKEN (Greentrax CDTRAX353)

A new album from Barbara is always a cause for celebration, and this is no exception. It sees her continuing her triumphant return to her roots with this latest collection, and finds her – having “been there, done that and bought the T-shirt” in all manner of musical endeavours, not least attaining healthy commercial cred and success along the way – bringing fresh insights to a handful of Scottish (mostly) traditional songs.

The burning question, of course, is can Barbara still cut it? Emphatically yes is the resounding answer – she’s in finest voice here, of that there’s no trace of doubt. Her spellbinding a cappella performance of Will Ye Gang, Love? towards the middle of the disc is all you need to hear to convince you on that front, but she’s every bit as responsive when accompanied. Her poised, supremely confident and abundantly expressive lines are especially compelling on her latest interpretations of Kishmul’s Galley and Ythanside, for instance, where she shows complete ease with making a timely return to the tradition where she began her career. The ballad King Orfeo receives a sparkling, animated makeover, while Burns’ Ca’ The Yowes is treated with both respect and understanding. There are also well-managed accounts of Owen Hand’s My Donald and Jim McLean’s Smile In Your Sleep, and a sprightly version of the carol Personent Hodie; but the surprise inclusion – and an entirely unexpected disc highlight – is a simple and eloquent voice-and-guitar reduction of Bridge Over Troubled Water (a song which I never thought I’d enjoy hearing again for a very long time!).

On this new album, Barbara’s gorgeous voice is cocooned within a lovingly created backdrop courtesy of her trusted collaborator, the genius producer, arranger and multi-instrumentalist Troy Donockley. The rapport between the two artists is both miraculous and absolute, and Troy has a unique gift for varying arrangements with an imaginative assortment of textures and yet keeping it all subtle; clearly his high degree of expertise as a practising musician provides him with an unrivalled understanding of what will work. And his empathy with Barbara as a matchless interpreter of song enables him to provide just the right level of sensitive support, avoiding swamping her accomplished technique with any unwanted or obtrusive layerings. As well as Troy’s own uilleann pipes, whistles, guitars, bouzouki, keyboards etc, there’s strings from Andy Dinan and Frank Van Essen, harp (Lucy Muir) and bass (Brad Lang) – but the soundscape is gentle and thoughtful without a hint of overkill. Only once or twice do I feel that Troy has overplayed his hand: for instance on Trees They Do Grow High (done as a vocal duet), where the drama is over-accentuated by a surfeit of effects, and on the joint Dickson-Donockley composition which opens the disc, The Magical West, which feels a touch too consciously “beautiful” to quite ring true. No serious complaints though, and I’m sure this lovely (and highly classy) disc will not disappoint those who appreciate the smoother and more polished approach to traditional song interpretation.

www.barbaradickson.net

David Kidman


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Graham Robins – THE SHIPPING NEWS (Global Sessions 001)

Graham’s lengthy pedigree as a singer-songwriter stretches back to the 1960s, but The Shipping News turns out to be only his third album release. His stock-in-trade is rootsy Celtic soul, very much in the manner of Van Morrison but if anything even tastier. Graham’s more than a match for Van in the vocal department; his gruff, emotional delivery with a hint of vulnerability stirs the listener from the start, and keeps you hooked throughout the course of the song – you almost don’t want each song to end. Graham’s heartfelt writing style proves just right for his voice, and he’s got an intuitive feel for instrumental colour that ensures each song gets the backdrop it deserves, whether it’s uilleann pipes, flute and dobro (Back To The Heartland), pedal steel and violin (Now All Of The Heartache’s Gone), harmonica (Snow Blind), jazz piano (A Letter From Paris) or cool Hammond (The Heights Of Abraham, Waiting For The Healing and the distinctly Band-like title track). The musicianship of his support crew is superb too. There really doesn’t seem to be a weak song among the dozen here, and although the chord progressions can be a touch samey or routine on occasion I’m having trouble finding anything negative to say about this disc. So if you’re into relaxed passion and soulful songwriting, and a fan not only of Van The Man but of all manner of classic roots musics from R&B through to gospel, then you’ll love Graham’s music.

www.grahamrobins.com

David Kidman


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Birds Of Chicago – BIRDS OF CHICAGO (Own Label, BOC-01)

Birds Of Chicago is a collective built around the duo partnership of Jeremy Lindsay (aka J.T. Nero, from Chicago’s JT & The Clouds) and Allison Russell (of Vancouver’s Po’ Girl). Although the two artists’ regular bands have been collaborating extensively for a few years now, the acclaimed 2011 JT Nero album Mountains/Forests was the two individuals’ first full-length joint venture, paving the way for the formal creation of Birds Of Chicago as a performing unit I guess. And not before time, for the blend of the musicians’ voices is truly something to be celebrated at length. JT’s has been described as “fractured country-soul”, and I couldn’t better that, whereas Allison’s is just as soulful in its own bittersweet way; both have that slight touch of roughness too, which makes it possible for them to draw on influences of anything from gospel to doo-wop and classic soul when singing.

This is a generously-stocked album (how good to find a disc lasting over 50 minutes these days, and especially one of such consistent quality!). It contains a dozen tracks, all original compositions, amongst which perhaps the only disappointment lies in the fact that only two are from Allison’s pen – but having said which, we can note with pleasure that JT writes so well for Allison’s voice that we’ve no cause for concern.

Perhaps the most obvious phrase that comes to mind when hearing JT and Allison’s special chemistry is “relaxed passion”, their mellow and assured performing style equally suiting the intimate (almost McGarrigle-esque) waltzery of Galaxy Ballroom, the reflective Old Calcutta and the swaying balladry of The Wide Sea via the more easygoing funk stylings of Trampoline and Come Morning. But they can also bring an even more uplifting, upbeat vibe to their delivery, as on the lightly cajun-inflected Sugar Dumplin’, the countryish Flying Dreams and the carnival-soufflé of Sans Souci. But, great though the voices’ combined harmonies are, I’d still single out as album highlights those tracks where Allison takes the vocal lead, most especially the sublime banjo-flecked evocation of home territory Humboldt Crows and Allison’s own Before She Goes.

JT and Allison are especially fortunate too in being able to call on a flexible band lineup that’s variously configured out of a pool of trusted musicians dubbed The Circus Family, who provide a gently rhythmic, tastily energised gumbo of well-adjusted dynamics involving accordion, piano, Rhodes, woodwinds, sax, trumpet and various guitars. I can’t fault the arrangements, which bring just the right flavour for each song. So I’ll bet that JT and Allison’s full band will really set the stage on fire with their upcoming UK duo tour in April… www.birdsofchicago.com

David Kidman


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Calum Stewart & Lauren MacColl – WOODEN FLUTE AND FIDDLE (Make Believe Records MBR3CD)

This new and fresh-sounding musical partnership is about to be unveiled in a stage setting at 2013’s Celtic Connections, the onset of which has given me time to savour their first official joint recording project. Some readers will, however, recall that Lauren contributed in no small measure to Calum’s earlier, solo, CD Earlywood. But of course, neither musician needs to prove him/herself – flautist Calum’s CV is already very impressive (including key membership of the band Manran), while fiddler Lauren has come a long way since winning the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award back in 2004 and already has a couple of fine solo records under her belt.

The creative combination of their two instruments is sheer magic, and no better demonstration can be found than in Calum’s beautiful slow air Alzen (track 3), where the textures are luxurious almost beyond imagining and the melodic invention sumptuous. Interestingly, a faster pace brings no letup in the rich quality of the instrumental sound or blend, and although there are times when Calum and Lauren call on a measure of sympathetic support from guests Eamon Doorley (bouzouki) and Andy May (harmonium), there’s no feeling of needless overlay at any point. The distinctive qualities of the two instruments is a special feature of this disc, with the deft breathy timbre of Calum’s wooden flute especially well caught by Mattie Foulds’ recording, this consistently complementing the dark bloom of Lauren’s viola and the varied tunings she employs on her fiddle.

The traditional music of the Black Isle and Moray regions has always been the lifeblood of both musicians, and this is reflected in their composing skills. Three of the tunes on the disc were penned by Calum, while one (the happy Crow Road Croft) is of Lauren’s devising; the bulk of the remainder are traditional in origin and tellingly arranged by the duo with their own individual qualities in mind. No individual track is too long for its own good, and the musical invention is concise and purposeful. Even so, the disc is rather short at only 36 minutes… Otherwise, there’s no sense of mere make-believe about this record – for the music-making is superbly real and tangible.

www.laurenmaccoll.co.uk and www.calum-stewart.com

David Kidman


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Nico – THE END (Universal UMCREP2018)

This newly-remastered two-disc deluxe edition of The End comprises both the original album in its entirety and a compelling sequence of radio, TV and live tracks recorded for the most part during the 12 months following the album’s release.

The studio album The End, recorded in 1973 and released in 1974, was Nico’s fourth solo album, being the final instalment in the triptych of albums which her former Velvet Underground colleague John Cale produced for her. It was, however, her only true album for the Island label (the ensuing June 1st, 1974 record being but a shared live set with Kevin Ayers, Eno and John Cale). As is often the way with important albums, it was critically lauded but sold poorly. Even today, though, it makes for a seriously uncompromising listen, but it’s unquestionably the most complete artistic statement Nico ever made, one of remarkable vision and insight.

For all that its bleak sound-world is centred around Nico’s gothic voice and sepulchral harmonium, it’s not actually a totally doom-laden record (albeit not a barrel of laughs either!). The sound, and Nico’s own musical arrangements, are extraordinary, strikingly individual and wholly complementary to the equally extraordinary symbolic imagery and poetry of her lyrics, although much credit is also due to Messrs Eno and Manzanera of Roxy Music, who between them (and with some help from Cale himself) provide an astoundingly original instrumental framework for the chanteuse – albeit one which dissipates during the course of the record so that only Nico and her harmonium are left by the close of the disc. The settings follow an intriguing course from the shimmering, pulsating atmospherics of It Has Not Taken Long and the swirling Secret Side to the spooky haunted drama of You Forget To Answer, the ear-piercing chirrupy synthy warbling on the veritable zoo soundscape of Innocent And Vain and the stately Valley Of The Kings, the ominous splintery electronica of We’ve Got The Gold.

The tour de force, of course, is the title track, an intelligently bejewelled and yet stark – but not in any way emotionally deficient – interpretation of the landmark Jim Morrison epic that took pride of place on the eponymous first LP by The Doors (for Nico herself had decided that the whole album was to be a memorial to Jim, her “soul brother”, with whom she’d had a passionate affair, and her own composition You Forget To Answer imagined her addressing Jim on her last sighting on the day of his death). The aforementioned centrepiece track forms a bold contrast with Nico’s tender reworking of Das Lied Der Deutschen (the German national anthem); all other compositions on the album, however, are Nico’s own, and demonstrate her new-found confidence in her songwriting ability. All told, The End is a distinctly seminal record, the tentacles of whose influence have spread far and wide (albeit largely unacknowledged) through all manner of branches of music in the intervening years.

Disc One (the original album) is worth the price of admission on its own, but Disc Two delivers in style too with a host of priceless, incredibly intense solo performances: the unadulterated essence of Nico. Standouts of these are undoubtedly the four (previously unreleased) vox-and-harmonium tracks cut for a John Peel radio session in December 1974, which culminate in a stunning, and peerless, take of The End. The glacial, eerie hymnal feel of these tracks, not to mention a pre-LP (1971) radio version of Secret Side and two songs from a 1975 OGWT show, all make for rewarding listening. OK, so this second CD might make you wonder whether you need as many as three bites at both The End and Secret Side, but they’re all worth hearing. The second disc is thus topped up with the version of The End performed at, and taken from the album of, the 1974 Rainbow concert, and a previously unreleased Das Lied from the same concert. Maybe true Nico addicts might wish for CD reissue of the remainder of the tracks from the Strange Fruit vinyl LP containing Nico’s 1971 radio session, and I’m sure the remainder of the June 1st 1974 live album will appear on CD in due course. But this two-disc edition is destined for the catalogue longevity the special, uniquely haunting and often disturbing nature of the music within surely deserves.

David Kidman


James J. Turner – HOW COULD WE BE WRONG? (Touch The Moon Records)

Think somewhere between the Pogues and the Waterboys, a rousing folky-rocky concoction with super-strong, passionate (almost Bono-esque) lead vocal and a driving rhythm section underpinning a rootsy whistle/fiddle/mandolin/accordion front-line, giving their all on a set of original songs with an often distinctly anthemic bent. If that’s your bag, then the music of Liverpool-born singer-songwriter James J. Turner will be right up your street. Former frontman with The Electric Morning, James made his debut as a solo artist with 2009’s Believer, which escaped my radar entirely for some reason. Its success (especially, I understand, in America) evidently spurred James on to making a followup, and this latest collection is a vibrant and super-confident album that plays to James’s strengths as a musical communicator, making the very most of his gift for accessible melody and punchy arrangement. The supporting musicianship is first-class, delivering on all counts and firing on all cylinders courtesy of Henry Priestman, Mark Knight, Vicky Mutch, Étienne Girard and Paul Walsham. It’s a classic sound for sure, richly upholstered and satisfying, and unlikely to disappoint folk-rock fans, especially in the areas of soaring cello and violin lines (Vicky and Mark respectively). Thoughtful numbers like Silver And Gold make their mark very fast, and several of the remaining tracks also feel like songs waiting to be covered by other artists at an early opportunity. The whole affair is so effortlessly immediate in impact, though, that it’s temptingly easy to distrust, to feel it’s almost a little too good to be true. For all that it’s centred round the time-honoured values of spirituality and affinity with people, nature and the land, some of the writing still feels a touch self-consciously crowd-pleasing perhaps, the messages a touch obvious, even when dealing sensitively with subjects such as war heroes (Forever No More). And the songs’ deliberately anthemic overtones can seem just a smidgen on the glib side, sometimes edging much into the rock-lite territory (as on the single Let Love Into Your Heart). But taken at face value, played loud and enjoyed on its own terms, it’s all quite irresistible, so How Could Anyone fail to warm to James’s music?

www.reverbnation.com/jamesjturner

David Kidman


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Benjamin William Pike – Devil On My Shoulder (EP) (Gin House)

This is a quiet little gem that at first rather undersells itself. Begging questions like how come this guy’s only just got around to releasing his first record when he’s been playing guitar since age 15 (all of 15 years ago) and is clearly at a well-developed stage of accomplishment right now. The EP’s five songs are all self-penned, comfortably nestling within a laid-back yet nifty and precise country-blues style that more than anything recalls Chris Smither, with occasional shades of John Martyn in the vocal department. Benjamin may not quite have Smither’s gift for melody, but he displays an intense assurance that’s both infectious and compelling in its own unassuming way. His guitar work is both genuinely creative and brilliantly deft, his confident and freewheeling fingerstyle picking punctuated by delicate runs with a folky-oldtime kind of inflection (Guiding Light), while his banjo technique is equally scintillating (Linda) and he’s no slouch either on pedal steel or, most especially, the six-string dobro-style lap slide (When I Leave). Evidently a glutton for musical exploration, Benjamin’s latest quest has been to master the 21-string Indian equivalent, the mohan veena, for a forthcoming fusion project on his next release; I can hardly wait! Oh, and by the way, it may come as a surprise to learn that Benjamin’s based in Leeds; indeed, together with three local fellow-musicians he’s set up an independent roots record label collective to distribute the music of Yorkshire-based roots artists. Even more puzzling, then, that I’ve not hitherto come across him in the region’s music venues.

www.benjaminwilliampike.co.uk

David Kidman


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Joy Dunlop – FAILEASAN (REFLECTIONS) (Sradag Music SRM004)

Joy is an accomplished young Gaelic singer (and step-dancer) from Argyll, currently based in Glasgow. Her life-long fascination with, and devotion to the promotion of, Scotland’s traditional music has led her to making her career in singing, showcasing Gaelic music and song in a contemporary way yet one that remains true to its roots. Her debut CD Dùsgadh (Awakening), released barely a couple of years ago, put Joy’s wonderfully pure-toned singing voice through its paces on a representative range of material – which, though sung entirely in the original Gaelic, presented no whiff of exclusivity or impenetrability but instead a thoroughly charming and accessible listening experience.

Entertainment that’s given the additional dimension of education, in the form of subliminal learning: a quality that’s enhanced even further on Joy’s followup disc Faileasan. Joy’s intention here has been to present authentic source material from rural Argyll, the sheer richness of whose local Gaelic song tradition is often underestimated and even overlooked. Joy has also drawn on the local area’s expertise for every aspect of the record’s production, from the engagement of backing musicians to CD design and photography and use of the celebrated An Tobar recording studio, while ensuring the primary focus remains on the songs themselves. Many of these celebrate, or at very least give mention to, the beauties of the local landscape – for instance, Eilean Luinn (composed by a native of that very island just south of Oban) and the feisty waulking song ’S Fhad’ An Sealladh. Other musical genres explored on this disc include the lullaby (the beautiful Crònan Chàrsaig, written in 1958); the ironic, humorous courting song (Ma Phósas Mi Idir…); and the lament (the extraordinary Cumha Chailein Ghlinn Iubhair, composed by the bard Duncan Bàn MacIntyre after the murder of Colin Campbell of Glenure, which is a real discovery and receives a breathtakingly poised a cappella account from Joy here).

Temporally speaking, the material tackled for this disc ranges from typically animated traditional puirt a beul (mouth music) to a very recent composition, Mary Ann Kennedy’s setting of Iain Crichton Smith’s words in praise of Taynuilt village (where the poet lived for many years before his death in 1998). With the possible exception of the latter sounding a wee touch too florid and over-ornamented, the musical arrangements Joy and her collaborators have provided for these songs are models of restraint and taste, with fleet-footed (not in the slightest bit heavy-handed) percussive backbeats from James MacIntosh where necessary. Variety of texture is provided by judicious alternation of guitar (Sorren Maclean) and piano (Andrew Dunlop) as the basic accompanying instrument, this then being further fleshed out by fiddle (Aidan O’Rourke, Rona Wilkie), accordion (Donald Shaw), or pipes (Lorne MacDougall) in various simple but effective combinations.

Standouts within this very persuasive set include the aforementioned lament, An Roghainn (Donald Shaw’s own setting of a Sorley MacLean poem), and the pleading love song Buain Na Raineich Taobh Loch Èite – but in truth each one of the eleven tracks possesses its own special character. And once again the language proves no barrier to our understanding, due to the excellent presentation of the disc – for full texts and translations are provided in the copious booklet. So this attractive release will I’m sure amply fulfil Joy’s stated aim in showcasing some of Argyll’s unjustly neglected musical heritage, hopefully also prompting a demand for a further selection in due course.

www.joydunlop.com

David Kidman


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Ben Glover – DO WE BURN THE BOATS? (Own Label BG03)

A Northern Irishman with a distinct empathy for the Americana genre who divides his time between Co. Antrim and Nashville, Ben here releases his fourth album of original songs. Having lately received glowing endorsements from Mary Gauthier, it’s a given that Mary should have some involvement in Ben’s latest record, and so it proves, on the disc’s closing track, Rampart Street, which turns out to be a joint composition – and incidentally, very probably the best and most memorable song on the whole album (not that any of the other nine songs are strictly below-par…). Some more of the tracks are also compositional collaborations: Uncomplicated was co-written with Amy Speace, and a handful of others were penned with multi-instrumentalist Neilson Hubbard who plays extensively on the album. Further guests include David Henry, Tania Elizabeth, Carey Ott, Dan Mitchell and Kris Donegan. Ben displays a keen grasp of the byways of Americana, and at times sings with a distinct Dylanish inflection although several of his songs (e.g. War To Believe) arguably have more in common in terms of overall feel with the work of Springsteen, while exhibiting an assured, laid-back demeanour. It’s been said that perhaps Ben’s most reminiscent of Ryan Adams, yet this is easier to detect in terms of sensibility than in the actual sound of his music. But it’s the more considered songs, like No Means Yes and the aforementioned Rampart Street, that make the most impact. However, there’s also something in Ben’s music that at times feels just out of reach of this listener, and that’s in spite of all its positive qualities; perverse though it sounds, the lasting impression of some of the disc is that of not always leaving a lasting impression.

www.benglover.co.uk

David Kidman


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My Darling Clementine – HOW DO YOU PLEAD? (Drumfire Records DRMFR006)

It turns out that this record was made around a couple of years ago, but – incredibly, given its quality – only recently has it managed to secure a proper licensing deal, with the Drumfire label. But no worries on that score, for the music within is as timeless as you can get: classic old-school country that pays direct and unashamed homage to the time-honoured duettists like George Jones & Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton & Porter Wagoner. My Darling Clementine is the all-embracing stage moniker for the husband-and-wife partnership of Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish, and 13 brand new self-penned songs form the basis for this record. Through singing in harmony to portray romantic disharmony, virtually every one of these has the welcome air of familiarity that deludes you into thinking it’s a lost country classic from the 60s or 70s. Instrumental support comes courtesy of a truly can’t-go-wrong crew that includes Alan Cook, Martin Belmont, Kevin Foster, Bob Loveday, Geraint Watkins and Jim Russell. There are times when Michael’s voice sounds uncannily like Roy Orbison (100,000 Words being a case in point), but nowhere does he risk approaching parody, nor even pastiche, for the keynote of the duo’s performances is an entirely affectionate, even at times distinctly playful tribute that honours the past, shot through with a keen respect for country music’s legacy and a total mastery of the original musical idiom. From fast-paced honky-tonk (Nothing Left To Say) to a pair of Patsy Cline-like tear-stained romantic dramas penned by Lou (Put Your Hair Back and the epic weepie The Other Half); from lonesome barroom waltzer By A Thread to the piano-boogie rockabilly of I Bought Some Roses and the easy, gently rolling Going Back To Memphis – everything’s in its rightful place, the twangy textures are brilliantly authentic, and the gorgeous vocals (especially Lou’s) are the richest possible icing on the cake for this grand trip through the gamut of emotions. Don’t you dare miss this one!

www.facebook.com/mydarlingclementine.music and www.michaelwestonking.com

David Kidman


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Lisa Knapp – HIDDEN SEAM (Navigator 084)

It’s five or six years now since nu-folkster Lisa unleashed her stunning debut album Wild And Undaunted, a remarkably clear-sighted artefact that still stands the test of time today. Equally inspired by folk tradition (as exemplified by Anne Briggs and Shirley Collins) and fresh insights brought by contemporary production and experimentation, that landmark release was a hard act to follow.

Keen acolytes have only really been able to observe Lisa’s musical progress since then through last year’s seasonal EP, Hunt The Hare (A Branch Of May), and the two-part track of that name which crops up towards the end of this new CD represents this new disc’s closest brush with folk tradition (paraphrasing Rocky Road To Dublin) and also features the voice and guitar of Alasdair Roberts. The preceding track, Two Ravens, a touchingly intense self-penned number on the subject of Alzheimer’s Disease, sports a characteristic and distinctively moulded guitar accompaniment from Martin Carthy, while the spacey yet reassuring closing lullaby Hushabye includes a harmony vocal from its co-writer Kathryn Williams.

But this defiantly original album is much more than the sum of its parts (or its guest contributors); Lisa’s own personal vision has clearly also been greatly inspired by the practical and spiritual assistance she’s derived from her husband, musical partner and producer Gerry Diver, who’s contributed several instrumental parts and string arrangements to the album. At the same time, the disc’s unbridled freewheeling creativity celebrates Lisa’s own perennial and immutable obsession with language as well as her love of folk themes such as the sea, the elements, death and mortality.

Hidden Seam walks the plank right at the start (so to speak) by ingeniously taking as its springboard the Shipping Forecast, mirroring Lisa’s undying fascination with place names and “diving in” with her incantation of the time-honoured litany to a decidedly weird yet ultimately logical backdrop (snatches of American Marine sound testing from the 1950s involving samples of sea creatures). Here, as throughout, Lisa’s singing is strange, almost other-worldly and yet very much of this world, exploring the twists and turns of meaning through vocal sounds and noises carried through into and out of ever-imaginative instrumental soundscapes. The disc’s title track (an oblique expression of the notion of similar or common themes transcending cultural boundaries), provides perhaps the most radical example of that technique here, while the ensuing Ruler Of The Rest brings an aromatic oriental exoticism (via the sound of the Chinese guzheng) to Lisa’s breathy and chillingly enigmatic paean to love. An insistent pounding pulse ushers in Black Horse, a Lal Waterson song, which features James Yorkston and Marry Waterson, and this is succeeded by the ominous Seagiver, where the slight warble that creeps into Lisa’s voice kindof brings back the soundworld of Kate Bush (whose music, and that of Björk, has been a key influence on Lisa, we know) but with altogether less (if indeed any) of a sense of wayward contrivance or striving for effect.

Lisa’s a true free spirit who communicates through her singing with an unnervingly easy intimacy, and even one cursory listen to the extraordinarily beguiling, and very special, labour-of-love that is Hidden Seam will guarantee your deep involvement in her unique vision (which, by the way, is tellingly enhanced by David Angel’s photography and design work on the package).

www.lisaknapp.co.uk

David Kidman


Lisa Knapp – Hunt The Hare (A Branch Of May) (EP) (Ear To The Ground Music, no catalogue number)

Now it’s my turn for feeling guilty and now having to own up about CDs getting unavoidably left on an ever-growing review pile for months on end! Lisa’s is one of those that absolutely didn’t deserve that fate, especially since a review was completed in the correct time-frame but life and technical issues got in the way of it being submitted. So here it is now, with my sincere apologies to Lisa.

Lisa’s is one of those names that keeps cropping up whenever nu-folk is cited, and she’s certainly one of the genre’s most interesting exponents. Her debut album Wild And Undaunted was an accomplished and highly original espousing of folk tradition, characterised by an exceedingly creative use of both modern technology and traditional acoustic instrumentation, and although there appears to have been an unduly lengthy silence (over 4 years) since that album, Lisa’s evidently not been idle. Whilst it will undoubtedly be seen as a stopgap between albums, this EP is to be taken seriously as a defined project in its own right. On its five tracks, Lisa celebrates in her own unique, quirky way the magic-filled month of May in all its folk-symbolic glory, through headily ambient and innovative treatments of two traditional songs complemented by three of her own exceptionally-tradition-aware compositions which both inhabit and journey through that very special realm that lies betwixt primal folk and psych-folk.

The playful (if also quaintly disturbing) opening track May Garland is almost too much to take in: an insistent, strangely needle-sharp near-collage of half-remembered song and sounds that interpolates and mingles joyful May-time sounds of nature (birdsong, bee-buzz) with the cheekily un-natural tones of cuckoo clock and music-box and Lisa’s distinctive fiddle-song pizzicato delivery. On Pleasant Month Of May, Lisa turns the Copper Family standard into an almost epic narrative that builds from a cautious and tentative tremulous vocal (mirrored in the hesitant heartbeat figures of the instrumental accompaniment) into a sun-splashed celebratory hallucination before it retreats into its shell again.

These tracks frame the bi-partite Hunting The Hare, which is Lisa’s masterly invocation of that very tradition refracted through a prism of psych-folk: very much Incredible String Band, methinks. Alasdair Roberts duets with Lisa here; on part 1 his voice delights in ululating Robin-Williamson-like counterpoint on the incantatory phrases taken and shaped from deep tradition and backed by rippling harp and piano chords, whereas part 2 finds the two singers cavorting and skipping on a veritable Rocky Road in the company of a tumbling, stumbling bodhrán tattoo. The disc’s final song, Green Jack, is arguably the most persuasive, if not the easiest of listening; here, Lisa delivers a hazier stream-of-consciousness that takes us into the territory of Jack-in-the-Green and the land of lost content through a portal of church bells and ticking clock, where clangorous hammered dulcimers cascade around Lisa’s dramatic aria (her voice revealing an unsuspected expressive intensity as this scena unfolds).

This EP is a gladsome little record ideally befitting its season, and is not only beautifully packaged but also provides an intensely rewarding, highly repeatable experience for the listener.

www.lisaknapp.co.uk

David Kidman


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Dick Farrelly & Mat Walklate – KEEP IT CLEAN (KLATECD012)

In summer 2011, Irish guitar ace Dick Farrelly and British blues harp champion Mat Walklate met almost by happenstance in an Amsterdam bar, played a few blues tunes together and just “clicked”; rushing into the recording studio, they took just 9½ hours to lay down this wonderfully unpretentious little 10-tracker from scratch! Imbued with a relaxed, authentic folky-blues-barroom ambience, the musicians are evidently thoroughly at home with their chosen material and the basic idiom, and their easy musicianship is much in evidence as the music just flows so very naturally. All but three of the tracks are traditional in origin; the remainder are joint compositions by Dick and Mat. The instrumentals (especially C Jam Blues) just motor along, with a restrained and comforting excitement and without the need to show off, just the desire to have a great time playing and communicating the good vibes. And such vibes permeate the blues, of course, although Dick and Mat sure keep it clean, taking no chances and observing the blues traditions to the letter even on their own compositions If It’s Love and 24 Hours (both in time likely to be found worthy of taking a place in the pantheon of blues classics). Faultless in execution though their new renditions of staples such as Bottle Up And Go, Good As I Been To You and Black Cat Bone may be, they also have such a striking sense of spontaneity that’s born of really knowing each other’s talents and the potential of their particular instruments (humble guitars and harmonicas). Timeless goodtime blues that will stand the test of time.

www.matwalklate.co.uk

David Kidman


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Dar Williams – IN THE TIME OF GODS (Floating World FREEM5039)

There’s always been more than meets the eye (ear) in the case of Dar Williams’ literate songwriting, and her latest offering, In The Time Of Gods, belies its fairly accessible folk-pop-rock musical setting even more than usual in learnedly referencing classical Greek mythology. But this isn’t done in a showy, pointed way, and in many cases you wouldn’t know about (or pick up on) those references and sources without being told… which might be said to rather defeat Dar’s purpose – but hey, that’s an argument for another day!… Anyway, don’t let that aspect put you off, for in songs like This Earth, I Am The One Who Will Remember Everything and Crystal Creek, the new album presents some of Dar’s most catchy melodies, and yet the subject matter is as thought-provoking as ever. For while not descending into gloomy prophecy or pessimism, Dar’s is a genuinely optimistic and hopeful stance, as songs like Storm King and the gently rolling The Light And The Sea amply demonstrate. Her trusty backing crew here includes Gerry Leonard and Rob Hyman, and Shawn Colvin appears on backing vocals from time to time; there’s also some gorgeous guest dobro work from Larry Campbell on You Will Ride With Me Tonight. For all its pretensions and ambition, In The Time Of Gods turns out to be quite a modestly low-key listening experience – and a rather brief one at that (just 33 minutes); also, whatever the quality of the music, it’s all perhaps a touch predictably tuneful for its sentiments and there’s not as much of a sense of adventure as you might expect. In the end, it’s rather hard to escape a certain feeling of a degree of cosy under-achievement when coming to the close of the disc.

www.darwilliams.com

David Kidman


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Police Dog Hogan – FROM THE LAND OF MIRACLES (Major Tom Recordings MTCD004)

PDH is a London-based seven-piece “country-meets-folk-and-urban-bluegrass” band that has been doing the rounds of festival stages since their formation around three years ago, and From The Land Of Miracles is their second full-length album release. Even so, one can be forgiven for not having come across them before – and I’m as guilty of that as the next man… On this hearing, the band’s most obvious influence is probably Steve Earle. Steve even gets a specific namecheck (and a sampling!) on track three, The More Things Change, and that track’s assured mixture of twang and foot-stompin’ roots-country probably gives the outfit its most distinctive signature, along with the more reflective stance of numbers like the winsome Matilda and the banjo-backed Black Crow. Although PDH adopts rather lighter pop-natured texturings for Jennifer and World Enough and the anthemic Second Life, the band rings the musical changes most convincingly on the pumping grass-rocker Let It Burn, the driving opening cut Better Go Now and the heavily rockabilly-inflected Mystery-Train-style rhythms of Devil Jim, while the more measured atmospheric D-Day narrative of Fraserburgh Train is an impressive and curiously catchy departure that provides a definite disc highlight. The brief a cappella The Banks, however, surely deserves a more weighty treatment than it gets here. The band’s songwriting team of guitarists James Studholme and Pete Robinson would appear to be responsible for all of the dozen tracks (including the uncredited, bonus cut 14 Roses), and their musical stall is well set out by the reliably rootsy contributions of their fellow band-members playing fiddle, banjo, mandolin, bass and drums. File under warm, accessible and promising.

www.policedoghogan.com

David Kidman


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Emma Black – SWIMMING IN THE MOON (Cornflower Records CR003)

You may have seen Emma over the past couple of years performing well-received support sets for (among others) The Indigo Girls, Kerr & Fagan and Uiscedwr. But the sad fact is that whatever their quality there are quite simply so many better-than-capable female singer-songwriters around these days that one can be forgiven for not quite clocking every name that impresses on the strength of a support date. Emma’s one such, even though her two album releases to date are both pleasing and persuasive. In a nutshell, if gently-phrased Americana-styled singer-songwriting appeals to you, then you need not hesitate in acquiring Emma’s latest offering. Its 13 well-crafted songs come gift-wrapped in exquisitely-managed settings that make good use of some of the UK’s most expert roots musicians – Alan Cook (pedal steel, dobro, mandolin), Einar Bradley (fiddle), Elizabeth Roberts (cello), Rioghnach Connolly (whistle, flute), Franny Eubank (harmonica), Alan Lowles (piano), Anthony Haller (basses) and Richard Young (drums) – and there are vocal harmonies from Kirsty McGee and others. Swimming In The Moon has a strong Nanci Griffith feel to proceedings, and although there are occasions where Emma’s lyrics are more politically inclined the musical climate rarely strays outwith the genial, pleasant, slightly folky-bluesy-country mode, which can lead the listener into a false sense of security and thence underestimate the harder edges of Emma’s vision. This applies especially to modern protest songs like Florence and Jack & Sally. Nevertheless, the more double-edged ambiguity of songs like Lies They’ve Sold works better in context, and the more conventional expression of Falling succeeds better in not trying for anything more ambitious in terms of arrangement. Even so, and notwithstanding the generally finely-crafted nature of Emma’s writing, the overall brightness of tone and evenness of texture and tempo leaves a feeling that more depth, light and shade is needed for this CD to make more of a lasting impression in a crowded marketplace. It all sounds just a touch too easy-going.

www.emmablack.com

David Kidman


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Andy Roberts – URBAN COWBOY (Fledg’ling FLED. 3088)

With Plainsong having just completed their 40th anniversary farewell tour, this is a timely reissue for ace guitarist Andy’s fine solo album from 1973, which was first released on Elektra and recorded before the formation of, during and just after the dissolution of the original Plainsong band – i.e. either side of their debut LP In Search Of Amelia Earhart. It’s a very characteristic early-70s album in that it boasts willingly-conscripted guest appearances from a number of music’s legends, who doubtless are repaying the debt from Andy’s championship of, and help with, their own music – although of course Andy was even then a veteran of numerous illustrious ensembles and a much-in-demand accompanist and sessioner to boot. Having said that, Andy’s own distinctive musical personality is a striking element of the album sessions, and his expertise on guitars and Appalachian dulcimer is abundantly precisely registered and transmitted, sounding clearer than ever in this brand new digital remaster, taken from the original master tapes. Due to the timeline of the album sessions, it’s no surprise that two of the numbers were actually recorded as Plainsong tracks (destined for the band’s never-to-be-released second album) – one of these being All Around My Grandmother’s Floor, a co-composition with Mike Evans (from Liverpool Scene days), the other a treatment of the traditional song Andy had first encountered on a Howie Mitchell LP lent to him by Iain Matthews. The remainder of Urban Cowboy consists of suitably solid acoustic-folk-rock with occasional bluesy, country or traditional folk overtones; the last track to be recorded, Home At Last, features The Grimms Band (including Neil Innes), while Martin Carthy contributes banjo to Baby, Baby and B.J. Cole pedal steel to the title song. All tracks were self-penned, aside from a cover of Jim Hall’s bitter ode to Elaine (to which RT contributes a signature playout electric guitar solo), with over half of the material taking its cue from what can best be described as Andy’s unconsummated romantic inclination of the time. It’s all good stuff, and worth having in the collection – and comes with a typically useful Fledg’ling booklet that sports within its dozen pages full recording details and credits and a revealing reminiscence-cum-essay by Andy himself.

www.andyrobertsmusic.com

David Kidman


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Anna MacDonald – PAPER FLOWERS (EP) (Firebeach Records, no catalogue number)

Anna’s a multi-instrumentalist (piano, guitar and clarsach) and singer-songwriter, raised in Glasgow but retaining roots in the Highlands and Islands, who celebrates her own musical heritage by singing in Scots, English and Gaelic – although not all three in the case of this, her second EP release. However, Anna does still get to demonstrate her grasp of traditional-style songwriting while showcasing her dynamic and distinctively beautiful singing voice, all the while begging the question of why we don’t hear more of her, especially on record. For she still hasn’t got round to releasing a full-length CD, and this latest five-track release can’t help but feel incomplete, however fine the individual tracks have turned out. Production’s by Fraser Fifield, and other musicians involved comprise Mike Vass, Graeme Stephen, Suzanne Houston and Mario Caribe. Quality assured, then, although the EP’s rich drama seems always to demand a longer stay in your home. The title song provides the most contemporary-styled romance, and the wistfulness of Naj’s Song is gently compelling, while Glasgow Rain delivers what’s probably the disc’s finest composition, a hauntingly evocative ode to her adopted city with an enchanting personal slant and some deliciously poised scoring. In contrast, I’m not quite convinced by Anna’s slightly cloying interpretation of Matty Groves (nor by her crediting of this track, and Banks Of Inverurie, within the “all songs written by Anna” bracket on the cover).

www.annamacdonaldmusic.com

David Kidman


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Syd Arthur – ON AN ON (Dawnchorus DCRC 006)

Neither a solo artist nor an intentional Herman Hesse-soundalike tribute act, but instead a Canterbury-based four-piece who take their inspiration from the late-60s/early-70s psych-prog pioneers of that locality, notably perhaps Caravan – at any rate by the overall feel of On An On. Softly jazzy keyboard chordings, set against harsher violin strokes and an edgier, almost new-wave guitar texturing, to deliver just one element of a constantly interesting musical backdrop to the original songs, presumably the creations of band member Liam Magill, whose vocals impart a suitably whimsical, if at times also slightly mystic air. The package doesn’t yield any specific breakdown of personnel in terms of instrumental responsibilities either, unfortunately, so I can’t elaborate on that aspect. Swirling, layered soundscapes and gently intense imagery are Syd Arthur’s stock-in-trade, yet there’s no lack of substance in their creations. The first tracks to get their subtle hooks into your mind are probably the smoothly cleansing Dorothy and the jagged Truth Seeker (which manages to pack a hell of a lot into its barely-three-minute span), but it won’t be long before you’re counting the album finisher, the nine-minute as-live workout Paradise Lost, with its episodic, sprawling High Tide-cum-proto-King-Crimson schizoid feel, as a candidate for replay too. The primarily-instrumental Night Shaped Light has something of the aura of an East Of Eden experiment (but without quite the distinctive Bartók quotient), whereas Soft Machine-style twisted (and twisting) time-signatures are a feature of several tracks including the riffy Moving World and the tough pop-entreaty Promise Me. In a manner of speaking, On An On delivers a carefree time-trip back into a bygone musical era, but with sufficient contemporary sensibility to engage the present-day listener.

www.sydarthur.co.uk

David Kidman


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Jimmy Lee & The Edge Of Chaos Orchestra – THE RUNAWAY (Own Label JL03)

This is what you might call an unashamedly biographical (often very much autobiographical) concept album, but one that comes without the turnoff factor that hoary tag normally carries with it. It took me a couple of tracks before I could make sense of Jimmy’s vision, but once I was convinced by the irrepressible, undeniably genuine nature of his story it became much like one of those books that’s impossible to put down.

Although Jimmy’s musical pedigree stretches from the embryonic London folk scene of the 1960s through to wider Nashville success in the 70s, he has latterly become known for running a prestigious venue in West Sussex, the Blue Coconut Music Club, where The Runaway was recorded. The general feel of Jimmy’s music now is that of Irish balladry, but with pronounced slants of Americana and contemporary country underpinning the inescapable overt Irishness of expression in Jimmy’s delivery. Gritty and rough-hewn, the quality of Jimmy’s vocal entirely reflects the nature of his own personal story – prior to the above-mentioned involvement in music, Jimmy literally became a teenaged runaway after being variously taken into care, joining the navy, deserting and being discharged, travelling to America and thence across to Ireland.

His songs prove rather classic: The Granuaile is a reminiscence of a fearful sea trip, Hard Man is an emotional portrait of Jimmy’s dad, while When I’m In Need is a no less harrowing entreaty that seems almost too painful for Jimmy to sing. No Flowers For Geordie (couched in the style of a country ballad) tells of a young boy washed overboard during his first few hours at sea, while The Chalk Stream laments the loss (due to the building of a pumping station) of one such remembered from Jimmy’s childhood. Strange though it may seem, Sweet Mystery has something of the aura of a Roy Orbison number, and Written In The Sand is a more reassuring and positive slice of life-philosophy. The instrumental The Ballerina forms a neat companion piece to the wistful waltzer Eileen, which relates a touching ballroom fairy-tale. The pithy tale of Hamlet proves quite jaunty by comparison, as does the closing instrumental medley which culminates in an almost carefree Turkey In The Straw. It’s interesting that musically speaking, nothing in Jimmy’s world ever really sounds on the edge of chaos, however difficult to categorise it proves in the final analysis.

The Runaway’s musical backdrop comes courtesy of a number of sterling musicians from the current UK folk scene (among them Gary Holder, Jon Wigg, Melanie Wells and Harry Bogdanovs), and draws its limpid colourings both from Irish traditional music (fiddle, banjo, whistle, guitar, accordion), and the wider world (sax, tuba, drums, keyboards) as well as classical tradition (cello). There’s something very compelling about Jimmy’s writing, and his performing mode is both stylish and intensely involved and yet somehow quite powerfully understated. The final effect is at times profoundly moving – unexpectedly so, in fact – and The Runaway turns out to be one of those rare artistic ventures that really convinces with its integrity and uncompromising honesty. www.edgeofchaosorchestra.co.uk

David Kidman


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Seudan – SEUDAN (Greentrax CDTRAX. 362)

Now here’s a piping album with a difference! Back in the early 1990s, Hamish Moore made a prototype replica of a set of highland pipes, The Black Set Of Kintail, which was originally made for Sir John MacRae of Ardintoul in 1785; he played it on his 1994 CD Stepping On The Bridge, following which the four young musicians making up Seudan (pipers Angus MacKenzie, Angus Nicolson, Calum MacCrimmon and Fin Moore) requested further sets be made, and in 2003 formed an eight-piece band to play them, culminating in a performance at 2004’s Celtic Connections. The name Seudan, meaning “treasures” or “jewels”, was then resurrected when the four pipers reconvened in 2009 (with the aid of further funding from the Scottish Arts Council), finally making this record in collaboration with Allan MacDonald, who contributes Scottish small pipes, jew’s harp and vocals to the project.

The four sets of replica pipes are, in accordance with their original specification, tuned to a deeper pitch than their modern equivalent, thus producing a sound that’s significantly fuller and richer – and communicates, excitingly, a wider gamut of emotions than normally associated with the Highland pipes.

The other principal aim of this disc is to illustrate the links between the piping and song traditions of the Western Isles, and to do this the selection of music played is rather different from what you’d find on a standard piping record. For a start, four of the disc’s eleven tracks feature vocals: two (a cattle-raiding song and a celebratory song, both in pibroch notation) are sung by Allan, and two (both taken from, or including, waulking songs) by Kathleen MacInnes.

The remaining, instrumental items also ring the changes in terms of scoring: the set of jigs The Rock and the concluding set (named after the Cape Breton dance player Alex Currie) are both driven along by Mac Morin’s piano, while Ross Martin plays guitar on the Horsburgh Castle set and Mac stepdances on the strathspey-and-reel combination Cameronian Rant. Notwithstanding those sparkling contributions, the central set of Quicksteps, played on just the four sets of pipes, is magnificent and enthralling. Served suitably “piping hot”, this is an enjoyable album on any grounds.

www.greentrax.com

David Kidman


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Jess Vincent – SEESAW DREAMS (Hatsongs HAT006)

Wiltshire singer-songwriter Jess’ debut album Time Frame was highly acclaimed, not least by myself, around 18 months ago, so its timely followup quite naturally garners high expectations. The title of this new record forms an apt description of the music within, an appealingly relaxing, liltsome and slightly dreamy set of songs, many of which exhibit a back-and-forth swaying motion that mirrors the equally inevitable ups and downs of universal relationship issues. These songs are also characterised by their refreshing demeanour, a (maybe at times slightly deceptive) bright-eyed simplicity that uplifts the soul and reassures the listener. Broadly, their idiom is an accessible, tuneful folksiness, with dashes of Americana of the light-textured Appalachian variety, either in terms of some of the instrumentation (like the rollicking banjo licks on the comforting, McGarrigle-esque Fetch My Heart) or their goodly measure of rustic backporch ambience (I Will Look For You and the lilting Everlys-style Emerald Eyes – two of the three lovely songs here that Jess penned jointly with Reg Meuross – and Come Around, or indeed in the observation that Jess’s delivery carries shades of Iris DeMent. The ruminative (and less sentimental) side of Dolly Parton might also be recalled occasionally, as on Caged Bird and Slow Down My Heart – but that’s not by any means the whole story, for Jess’s writing (and her own knowing, personal brand of plain-spoken mysticism) also plumbs deeper levels if you’re prepared to dig a little. Indeed, the chirpy sing-song nature (and Kate Bush-like compass) of The Orchard rather belies its stature as a contemporary folk ballad narrative, especially considering its unsettling, lullaby-like refrain. In amongst the disc’s eleven originals Jess inserts one traditional song, Silver Dagger, which doesn’t quite sit right here, not least because it feels less well-suited to Jess’s voice or style of delivery. In that respect too, I can’t avoid repeating the comment I made in my review of Time Frame, that Jess isn’t always entirely able to escape that slightly strident overtone to the otherwise attractive timbre of her voice, a voice which is for the most part is thoroughly charming. The deft instrumentation that backs Jess on Seesaw Dreams is contributed by an almost identical crew to that utilised on Time Frame – i.e. Reg Meuross (guitars, banjo, mandolin, uke, harmonica), Marcel Rose (guitar, mandolin, uke, fiddle), Beth Porter (cello) and Roy Dodds (percussion). Once again, the estimable Reg Meuross is in the production chair, and provides some pleasing, typically soothing and sympathetic backing vocals to complement Jess’s own singing. With Seesaw Dreams, Jess has produced an entirely credible further chapter in her songwriting development, albeit nonetheless a more difficult act to follow for album number three…

www.jessvincentmusic.co.uk

David Kidman


Jess Vincent – TIME FRAME (Own Label, no catalogue number)

This turns out to be a rather special album. And that’s not always the case with records that receive prominent endorsements from fellow-artists you’d expect to trust… In this instance, though, I’m so pleased to report that Reg Meuross’s faith in, and direct involvement with the production of, songwriter Jess’s debut album is fully justified – and then some!…

Wiltshire (Bradford on Avon) native Jess is a rare talent indeed. She’s already been active on the local scene for some time as a key member of acoustic band The Penny Red (its other constituents being guitarist Marcel Rose, Kayleigh and Adrian Barnes, and Tim Watts). For her debut solo record, though, she’s engaged – in addition to the mandolin and lap steel skills of band-mate Marcel – a small handful of well-respected musicians of even wider experience: Reg Meuross himself of course, with Beth Porter (cello), Olivia Dunn (violin) and Roy Dodds (percussion). The backdrops are thus at once rustic and classical-tinged, with banjo and guitars complemented by cello and violin textures – an exceedingly engaging combination.

Jess’s songs may seem to concern themselves largely with the time-honoured preoccupations of singer-songwriters, notably loving, losing and leaving – and the inevitable forming and ending of relationships – and their perceptiveness is shot through not only with a keen sense of traditional folk writing but also with an unselfconscious yet knowingly fragile maturity, their gently melancholy expressive lived-in quality arising out of experience. Runaway is a lonesome-style yearning for a fresh start after a failed relationship, while the traditional faithless-lover theme is given a creative twist on Cruel Richard and a somewhat more sanguine attitude to romance is exemplified on Bones; whereas the economic yet evocative story-song Sally In The Woods turns out to be a co-write with Reg and forms a departure from the more personal mode of much of the rest of the album’s material.

Admittedly (although it’s not a problem for me), some listeners may find Jess’s voice takes a bit of getting used to at first, for its attractive, if sometimes fairly strident warble might be described as an interesting mix of Kate Bush and Iris DeMent; the contours of Jess’s melodies often recall the former in particular, while Jess also herself cites the latter as one of her influences. Then again, there are other, perhaps less expected resonances in Jess’s songs: for instance, the unutterably bouncy Jenny directly mimics the rhythm of Jolene, whose creator is herself evoked in Jess’s chirpy vocal delivery (and I can’t resist a special mention for the infectious, skipping mandolin part on this number, provided by Jess’s Penny Red colleague Marcel Rose). And the wide-ranging vocal compass of Don’t Take My Clouds has the air of early Joni Mitchell.

Time Frame is a very strong set of songs, performed with brilliance, conviction and genuine emotion by a distinctive voice that will (within a short time frame of its own, I feel sure) be regarded as the class act it undoubtedly is.

www.jessvincentmusic.co.uk

David Kidman


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The Raven – BLACK IS THE COLOUR (Own Label, no catalogue number)

The Raven is the stage name of London-based Carolyn Forbes and Stephen Moncrieff, who released a taster EP a couple of years ago: a disc whose proclivities are further developed on Black Is The Colour, The Raven’s first full-length album. Carolyn and Stephen have a particular taste for presenting the darker side of the traditional song repertoire, while at the same time not getting too morbid in the process; their interpretations are stimulating and invariably interesting. The combination of spacious production and intelligent, relatively sparse arrangements proves very effective, although for the most part centred around the simple textures of guitar and flute with occasional embellishment from cello, mandolin and primitive percussiveness. A slightly eerie take on the album’s title song holds one’s attention, as does the laid-back syncopation and morris-bound gait of The Cuckoo (a tune set based around the “nest” rather than the “pretty bird” itself). A leisurely, expansive take on The Blacksmith follows, proving a high point after which a less thoughtful, almost rushed (and uncertain-sounding) a cappella Ten Thousand Miles comes as something of a disappointment. However, the disc then increases in interest –and weirdness – as it progresses, with occasional hints of the Sun Also Rises duo in passing; She Moved Through The Fair brings some unsettling and unearthly experimental drones to accompany Carolyn’s vocal, while The Snow It Melts The Soonest receives a captivating, though unusually-metred rendition that benefits much from the close harmonies of the two voices (the closing “round” treatment is an intriguing idea too). The album’s lone original song, the rather finely-constructed and idiomatic Greenwood, brings a freshness of approach with its tripping, if mildly cautious spring in the step that the preceding Dribbles Of Brandy tune-set doesn’t quite achieve despite best intentions. The duo’s account of Rosebud In June is ethereally ritual in nature – and rather beguiling – while the disc comes back to earth (or should I say water) with Stephen’s forthright take on the shanty South Australia, which arguably errs on the side of strident (although I rather like it!), although the full-bodied harmony arrangement is interesting in its own right. After the close of which, I was rather left pondering why no ravens had been mentioned, even in passing, during the course of the album…

www.theraven.me

David Kidman


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Various Artists – A HIGHLAND JOURNEY VOLUME 2: MUSIC IN THE GLEN (Greentrax CDGMP.8014)

One of the most successful of all Greentrax albums sales-wise has been A Highland Journey In Music From Scotland, which was released back in 2005 in the Celtic Collections series. So here’s its sequel, which presents a further selection of mood pieces with suitably evocative titles, each comprising a gently creative stitch-together by multi-instrumentalist (and Greentrax regular) Jack Evans of (mostly) traditional tunes, who performs them pleasingly and melodiously on guitar, bouzouki, mandolin and whistle in consort with Pete Clark (fiddle) and Marc Duff (whistles, recorder), to an almost continuous ambient backdrop of natural environmental sounds of the Scottish Highlands. It’s probably fair to say that like its predecessor, this disc is aimed squarely at the tourist market, and therefore can’t really be reviewed with quite the same critical ears as the continually magnificent releases within the standard (ie. specialist) Greentrax catalogue. Nonetheless, it observes the usual high Greentrax standards as regards playing and recording/engineering, if not in terms of presentation, where the booklet only lists the suitably evocative track titles (not tune sources or names) and basic personnel and production credits. It’s all a touch too pleasant and soft-hued, and although it will doubtless sound nice playing in the background while you browse in the gift shop, I prefer to hear environmental sounds in the wild, in their natural milieu, not adulterated with music (or vice versa). So it’s a matter of personal preference, no more and no less.

www.greentrax.com

David Kidman


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Kilmarnock Edition – PAY IT FORWARD (Greentrax CDTRAX. 370)

This new “songwriting supergroup”, which takes its name from Burns’ celebrated volume, first came together at the 2009 International Burnsong Songhouse, when as individual prize-winners, they were closeted together to write original songs (in Scots, English and Gaelic for a week (to culminate in a gig in the Scottish Parliament on St. Andrew’s Day). All five of the group’s members are established songwriters in their own right, and their cultural, geographic and stylistic spread enables them to weave together many elements of contemporary Scottish song; thus, although their roots are predominantly in Scots folk, the mix of musics on their debut CD Pay It Forward consciously and gleefully weaves in strands of jazz, reggae, Gaelic and other world sounds. Two of the group members (Fiona J. Mackenzie and Alex Hodgson) already have albums on Greentrax, whereas Greenock singer/pianist Yvonne Lyon is well-known on the contemporary acoustic scene. Edinburgh-based Lisa Rigby; and Roberto Cassani from Perth, both hitherto unknown to me, complete the lineup – well, almost, for percussionist/singer Stuart Clark is also listed on the press release as a band member although he’s neither credited with writing any of the material nor as a participant at the Songhouse.
The individual singers – all blessed with strong and distinctive voices – tend to take the lead on their own songs, which is only to be expected, but there’s also a certain amount of vocal exchange within songs too. Personal taste will necessarily condition one’s response to each singer, but there’s no question that there are times when Alex’s soulful tone, Fiona’s sculpted clarity or Yvonne’s straightforward purity are exactly what’s required. Of the twelve tracks, I most enjoyed Lisa’s anthemic Women Of The Earth; Fiona’s affectionate, encouraging Find Your Smile and intriguing, insouciantly tripping “Gaelic+jazz” experiment The Gazz; and Yvonne’s affecting community hymn Seasons; while the joyously folky goodtime feel of the collaborative title track and the reflective reggae groove of Lisa’s Rain Of States is certainly attractive. In fact, first time around, it’s almost all too easy to appreciate the immediacy and chummy catchiness of much of this disc, especially when it starts so companionably with the cheery chanting of Coma Co Dhiubh; but after a while the collection’s proud eclecticism tends to grate a bit. I also found that two of the songs (the vacuously breezy sunshine-pop Sunshine and the out-of-place vaudeville-style dialogue of How Can We Live?) obstinately refuse to “click” with me at all, either in terms of material or musical arrangement.
Even so, the whole set has an accommodating, nay fairly exuberant, good-humour vibe, a distinct sense of pop-theatre, which will doubtless appeal more to mainstream (not necessarily folk) audiences. And it’s impossible to fault the performances; the incidental instrumental skills of the five songwriters themselves are supplemented by the proven musicianship of sessioners David Lyon, Mary Ann Kennedy, Allan Henderson, Craig Dunsmore and Jaimie Stables, and the cannily pop-sensitive production, involving a certain amount of programming alongside the instrumentalists, is in the capable hands of Graeme Duffin, Nick Turner and David Lyon.

www.kilmarnockedition.com

David Kidman


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Alistair Ogilvy – LEAVES SAE GREEN (Greentrax CDTRAX. 365)

Finalist in BBC Radio Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician Of The Year two years running (2011 and 2012), Alistair was also awarded the title TMSA Young Traditional Singer Of Merit in 2011. He has a distinctively melodic and gently expressive singing voice with an attractive occasional vibrato, a voice which readily connects with its audience and which is nicely complemented here by various contributions from his session-musician friends Aly Macrae (piano, fiddle, mandolin, euphonium, pocket trumpet), Steven Polwart (guitars) and Inge Thomson (harmony vocals), and a deft production by Mattie Foulds.
The material Alistair’s chosen for his debut recording is a well-balanced mix of the traditional with the contemporary, the latter category embracing a pleasingly different rendition of Dylan’s Girl From The North Country alongside a powerful take on Andy M. Stewart’s heart-rending song of unrequited love Where Are You Tonight, I Wonder? and a lovingly crafted account of Davy Steele’s beautiful The Rose O’ Summerlee. There’s also an imaginatively paired, animated brace of Burns songs (Crowdie and Wantonness). The well contrasted selection of traditional pieces includes a strong account (with a fairly florid, almost classical-style piano-accompaniment) of the ballad Willie’s Fatal Visit and an unusually restless-seeming take on Bonnie Ship The Diamond. The tale of Captain Wedderburn’s Courtship benefits from being done a cappella, but the quality and variety of the instrumental settings on the remainder of the disc merits a special mention, for Aly’s clearly got the measure of Alistair’s vision for these songs – and yet he refuses to allow Alistair’s special vocal character to get swamped by instrumentation. The album closes with a song of Alistair’s own – The Kirkwall Light, which graphically depicts the sight of greylag geese in swirling flight in the winter light on Orkney – set to a conglomeration of tunes assembled by Aly.
I greatly look forward to hearing a further collection from Alistair before too long.

www.alistairogilvy.com

David Kidman


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Various Artists – ¡NO PASARAN! (SCOTS IN THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR) (Greentrax CDTRAX. 3639)

This is the latest example of Greentrax’s ongoing commitment to producing quality themed compilation albums. It may at first glance seem like one of those obscure releases that would be of value only to those harbouring a strong interest in this particular branch of history – but if I mention that the roll-call of artists appearing includes Dick Gaughan, the McCalmans, Robin Laing, Christine Kydd, Alison McMorland & Geordie McIntyre, Eileen Penman and Jim Brown, and that nine of the 16 tracks were recorded specially for this compilation, your appetite will have been whetted sufficiently to at least wish to investigate the disc – and I feel sure that investigation will result in purchase!
The disc celebrates the contribution of the International Brigades defending Spain from fascism in 1936, and brings together a generous selection of songs written mainly from the Scottish perspective. Most of them are not at all well-known: indeed, the vast majority are of quite recent composition. Specially outstanding among these are Geordie McIntyre’s Viva Los Brigadistas (stirringly accompanied by Allan MacDonald’s smallpipes); Hasta Luego, a poignant imagined conversation from the pen of Hamilton songwriter Frank Rae; and Eileen Penman’s sensitive setting of the Mary Brooksbank poem Graves In Spain. However, Christine Kydd’s singing (in Spanish) of the plaintive yet defiant Si Me Quires Escribir (of unknown origin), and Robin Laing’s delicately descriptive Picasso Paints Guernica also provide the collection with potently simple and well-judged contributions. Only a small proportion of the songs could be considered repertoire standards: Ewan MacColl’s memorial to Jamie Foyers needs no introduction, and the powerful new rendition by Dick Gaughan easily surpasses his previously-available recordings (on Live In Edinburgh and the nineties Black Crow set of MacColl covers), whereas Peat Bog Soldiers is given here in a previously unissued McCalmans live recording from 1979 featuring the group’s original lineup. Fittingly, and directly following on from the rousing electricity of the disc’s title song (by Gallo Rojo, who include within their ranks Rory Macleod and Sean Donnelly), the album closes with a passionate reading of Bob Cooney’s remarkable poem Hasta La Vista – Madrid! by BBC Radio Scotland presenter Iain Anderson. And finally, it almost goes without saying that all the usual plaudits regarding exemplary Greentrax production standards apply to the excellent presentation of this disc.

www.greentrax.com

David Kidman


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Fiona J. Mackenzie – ARCHIPELAGO (Greentrax CDTRAX368)

Morayshire-based Fiona, although brought up in the Scots folk tradition, sings in both the Scots tongue and in Gaelic, and has won various awards including a Mod Gold Medal. Her two previous discs on the Greentrax label were significantly enterprising and thoughtfully-planned tradition-based records which appealed to wider audiences than just those listeners accustomed to the Gaelic tradition, with 2009’s Good Suit Of Clothes (a collection of songs of the emigrant Gael) being especially persuasive. Her gift for putting together a stimulating programme of songs for home listening is similarly strongly in evidence on her third collection, Archipelago, where she brings together songs in Gaelic, Scots and Norn emanating from islands all across Scotland (Shetland in the far north to Ailsa Craig in the south). The challenge of representing the diverse beauty of the islands and their unique landscapes, and the equally diverse styles of the chosen songs, has clearly provided Fiona with added inspiration, and the result is a sequence of eleven renditions clothed in inventive and continually changing instrumental arrangements.
Helping Fiona realise her vision of these songs, we find a host of guest musicians (David Lyon, Gillian Frame, Mairi Campbell, David Francis, Graeme Duffin, Sandy Jones) and singers (Barbara Dickson, Yvonne Lyon, Alex Hodgson, Iain Mackinnon) gently embellishing Fiona’s own marvellous, sweet-toned voice. The arrangements are smooth, accomplished and nicely restrained in terms of texture (ie not too richly endowed), if at times a touch too reliant on programming perhaps. However, the sparser of the settings invariably prove the most satisfying, as in the breathy, intensely evocative drone-and-clarsach-backed lament from Raasay (which opens the album) and the specially atmospheric desolation of the episodic piobaireachd-song from the pen of Skye piper and writer Angus Macphee. The latter makes good creative capital out of the use of samples, as also does Fiona’s treatment of the Unst Boat Song, which additionally incorporates the singing voice of John Stickle of Unst (in an eerily effective archive recording from 1947).
Elsewhere, the courtship rowing song from St. Kilda is invigorating, as is Smuggler (a spirited, if more leisurely-paced version of the standard made famous by the McCalmans). Alex Hodgson takes the lead vocal on two songs (Smuggler and his own composition Marion’s Lament, which interpolates some passages of spoken Gaelic verse by Fiona herself). And the saga of the Sule Skerry Silkie is well told, if perhaps a touch too sweetly. For although I can’t fault the splendid playing or the wonderfully clean production, at the same time I can’t escape a slight feeling of over-soft-focus that only just manages to avoid compromising the craggy island beauty of the texts – this is most noticeable on the purely contemporary songs like Iain MacKinnon’s An Eilthireach (The Exile) and Gill Bowman’s Journey Back To Arran. But in the final analysis Archipelago is a very attractive release, sporting fulsome accompanying booklet with complete texts and notes and supremely beautiful design and photography in the best Greentrax tradition.

www.fionamackenzie.org

David Kidman


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Ian Hardie – A BREATH OF FRESH AIRS (Greentrax CDTRAX. 001)

Having recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, Greentrax is here re-releasing the very first album in its illustrious catalogue, dating from 1986. This was the first solo record by Ian Hardie, the outstanding fiddle player from Jock Tamson’s Bairns (currently with ceilidh band the Occasionals), on which he was joined in true session spirit by Jack Evans (guitar), Iain MacFadyen (piano), and more occasionally by Patsy Seddon (clarsach) and John Croall (bodhrán). They play a wide selection of tunes – marches, reels, airs, pictorial pieces - all 32 of which were composed by Ian himself, and very many of them have gained wide currency in the years since they’ve been written. Several are written in bagpipe scale, and on those Ian plays the Scottish smallpipes; on some other tracks Ian also mildly extends the palette with a modicum of double bass or acoustic bass. Musicianship is impeccable, the playing invigorating, and the tunes themselves prove delightful, often as not incorporating a distinctive, breezy spring in the step that’s wholly irresistible (check out the brilliant jig-and-reels set at track 6 for starters!). No wonder, then, that the disc’s release was prompted by the then-recent publication of a book of Ian’s tunes. And this re-release even sports a bonus track, most appropriately the interpolation (into an Isla St Clair performance of Zeta St Clair’s song Glen Isla) of the lovely waltz that Ian composed to celebrate the Ruby Wedding of Greentrax supremo Ian Green. The feel of the album is indeed that of a massive Breath Of Fresh Air (sic).

www.greentrax.com

David Kidman


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Eve Selis – Family Tree (Hippie Chick Twang Records HCTCD1111)

Winner of a number of awards for services to Americana, San Diego native Eve is a singer-songwriter with a strong grasp of roots music of all persuasions, who draws her inspiration from virtually all potential wellsprings on her latest CD, a collection of 14 sturdy numbers that concern themselves with the time-honoured matters of life, love, loss, family, faith, hardship and triumph. Eve’s accomplishment has clearly been hard-won, but on this showing it’s all almost as natural as walking to Eve and her mighty little band of co-conspirators (who include Albert Lee, Rick Schmidt, Dennis Caplinger, producer Steve Churchyard and a host of backing vocalists). With its warm and upfront production, the qualities of confidence, attitude and flair pervade the whole album, and Eve is clearly comfortable with her material, her own skills and those of her companions, and the studio environment of San Diego’s premier recording facility. And even if there’s a feeling that Eve’s covering almost too many musical bases there’s also a feeling that she really can’t stop herself – her (entirely justified) enthusiasm is overwhelming at times! She’s an excellent singer, who sure gives her absolute all to each individual song performance, whether the idiom be old-school country (Bump In The Road), gutsy pop (Water Off A Duck’s Back), gentle reflective ballad (I Don’t Want To Cry), bluesy stomper (Rubber And Glue), newgrass (When Is Everything Enough), swamp-rock (All Roads Lead To Here), strutting Petty-esque jangle (65 Roses), or catchy retro-rockabilly-rock (Stop The Train – and this one really rocks!). It all comes to an end with a respectable (though perhaps not especially distinctive) take on Leonard Cohen’s almost-too-frequently-covered Hallelujah, which feels like a slight anti-climax after ten powerful songs co-penned by Eve and covers of Lori McKenna and Kim McLean numbers. The CD’s dedicated to Eve’s dad, who she says “always wanted me to be a country singer”; ambition realised! – but Eve’s so much more than that, as you can hear, and deserves to be lauded not just for her versatility as a performer but also for her dependable, idiomatic songwriting. Surely her persistence, and the sheer quality of her music, will pay off soon with some of that overdue recognition.

www.eveselis.com

David Kidman


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Aly Bain & Phil Cunningham – FIVE AND TWENTY (Whirlie Records WHIRLIECD.28)

A natural title for these master musicians’ sixth joint album for Whirlie, Five And Twenty celebrates 25 years of touring together. And inevitably it’s a further sparkling illustration of everything they do best, and as such is not an easy album to review without indulging in the well-worn superlatives. Equally inevitably, though, any fan of these guys’ fabulous musicianship will need a copy of this self-recommending record.

In the space of just a little over 42 minutes, the musical landscape turns from Ireland to Scotland and Canada and back again (albeit mostly viewed through a distinctively Scottish lens), characterised by sensitive and accomplished arrangements that for much of the time (with typical ingenuity) creatively revolve around just Aly and Phil themselves (gaining plenty of textural variety of course from Phil’s own personal and highly enviable brand of instrumental versatility on accordion, piano, mandolin, cittern and whistles), but occasionally also bringing in simpatico fellow-musos Michael McGoldrick (flute), Jenn Butterworth (guitar), Ewan Burton (double bass), and Adam Brown (bodhrán), with Tom Orr and Gordon Smith appearing on isolated tracks.

It’s probably invidious to try to single out individual tracks for special praise, since Aly and Phil are proven masters of so many different forms and styles of traditional music, and it’s probably fair to say that I enjoyed specific tracks in specific moods. But, if pushed, I’d recommend first the stirring opening set of Irish slides that lights my candle every time, not least due to the extra buzz generated by McGoldrick’s uilleann pipes. The fiddle-led set of wedding reels (track 8) packs a hefty drive yet with a lightness of touch, while there’s an irresistible authentic ceilidh-band feel to the bouncy pipe-marches of the final track that won’t fail to get your feet tapping. Of the slower-paced tracks that are sensibly interspersed amongst the uptempo selections, the Rev. William Macleod’s fine air Sitting In The Stern Of A Boat is the highlight for me, although the sequence also includes three gorgeous waltzes that prove perfect showcases for the musicians’ inborn expressive elan.

Two abundantly fine musicians still at the top of their game after a quarter of a century – and showing no signs of decline whatsoever… now there’s something to celebrate!

www.whirlierecords.co.uk

David Kidman


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Jimmy LaFave – Depending On The Distance (Music Road Records MRRCD012)

Austin-based singer-songwriter Jimmy hasn’t released a new studio album in close on five years (his last, Cimarron Manifesto, released in 2007 on Red House, unaccountably passed me by), having been kept busy with touring his Woody Guthrie tribute show and then getting his own record label off the ground. So I’d forgotten how persuasive his mellow, soulfully laid-back brand of Americana can be.

Jimmy’s stock-in-trade is aching, longing reminiscence and melancholy regret, set within the open rolling landscapes of Texas and Oklahoma, and on this latest collection he sure goes the required distance with brand new songs like Clear Blue Sky, A Place I Have Left Behind, Land Of Hope And Dreams and It Just Is Not Right, all of which evoke with telling clarity those “highways to the depth of the soul” which are his speciality. It’s not all slack-tempo balladry either, with believable excursions into steel-driven twang (Talk To Me) and tasty country-funk (Red Dirt Night) that sensibly vary the pace of the album.

But there are also times on this new record when I could also argue that Jimmy’s characteristic wistful drawl seems to identify equally closely with the feelings expressed on the disc’s handful of Bob Dylan covers; and of course, Jimmy’s always had a great empathy with Dylan’s writing. He doesn’t go for the obvious choices either: Red River Shore here receives an epic nine-minute treatment that inspires his backing musicians to a gleaming climax, while Tomorrow Is A Long Time gets probably its finest interpretation since Sandy Denny, really getting to the heart of this deceptively simple early lyric. I’ll Remember You is more straightforwardly, yet still very tenderly, done.

With a support roster that includes Glenn Scheutz, Bobby Kallus, Chip Dolan, Bill Chambers, Eliza Gilkyson and Tameca Jones, you can rely on the standard of musicianship too, and their stylish contributions suit Jimmy’s approach just fine. The one item on the whole disc where I part company with Jimmy is his choice of John Waite’s Missing You for the final cover – even his capable voice can’t redeem this mainstream ballad for me, and it proves the CD’s one skippable moment.

www.jimmylafave.com

David Kidman


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Mary Gauthier – Live At Blue Rock (Proper PRPCD106)

On a purely musical level, this is a tremendous live album, with Mary on absolute top form. It would also appear to have fulfilled its stated intention, providing what amounts to a “greatest hits” without compromising on quality, while also furnishing a decently representative selection of songs to introduce newcomers to Mary’s special character, and including on its tracklist a couple of hitherto unrecorded songs. But wait: it doesn’t quite cover all bases, for while it succeeds magnificently in capturing a major part of the essence of the artist, it doesn’t actually get to paint the entire portrait, omitting an integral element of the highly emotional experience of seeing her live – that of the between-song intros and explanations, which for numbers like Last Of The Hobo Kings, can be as crucial as the songs themselves. Having said that, I wouldn’t necessarily have preferred a stretched-out two-disc set (tho’ a DVD version would’ve been a good move) to the 68-minute CD we have here, which works out just great as an in-concert sequence anyway.

Interestingly, however, the set kicks off not with one of Mary’s own compositions but Fred Eaglesmith’s Your Sister Cried; thereafter moving into her own œuvre with a vengeance for the aforementioned Last Of The Hobo Kings, followed brilliantly by the iconic Blood Is Blood (the only song in the set to have been sourced from her concept album The Foundling). The pair of previously-unrecorded songs – both from the pen of Fred Eaglesmith too, incidentally – don’t disappoint, and Cigarette Machine turns out to be a set highlight even in the illustrious company of so many of Mary’s own classics like Kara Faye, I Drink, Sugar Cane, Our Lady Of The Shooting Stars and Drag Queens And Limousines. I would perhaps have expected to find Soft Place To Fall in the set too, but all of Mary’s albums are represented in the sensible selection apart from Dixie Kitchen (which surely could have yielded at least one track). Oh, and if you didn’t spot Mercy Now on the tracklist, then it’s because it’s brought in as a hidden bonus cut right at the end of the disc, tho’ maybe it feels a bit of an anti-climax after the seven-minute workout of Wheel Inside The Wheel.

Which brings me to voicing one profound irritation, one which a reviewer should not have to suffer time and again – that of having to undertake time-consuming research in order to provide the reader with sufficiently informed commentary. In this case, two different agencies supplied a press release with identical text, which however nowhere gave any of the vital details regarding support personnel, or even the actual recording date. I can finally reveal that Mary’s accompanists were Tania Elizabeth on violin and Mike Meadows on percussion (with fuller band and choir brought in for Mercy Now – so was this recorded on a different date entirely, I wonder?) – but given the stunning quality of their contributions it’s absolutely criminal, nay unforgivable, to omit namechecking them. I’m getting thoroughly fed up with this make-do-with-the-bare-minimum attitude among labels who constantly refuse to issue us reviewers with what we need to do the job properly – ie., the all-important finished package – and then expect us to do the artist’s work justice and sell it honestly to the prospective purchaser. Grrr…

www.marygauthier.com

David Kidman


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Tift Merritt – Traveling Alone (Yeproc CD-YEP-2291)

Tift’s latest collection (her first recording since 2010’s See You On The Moon, and her first for the Yep Roc label) is a series of compelling personal meditations on the theme of “the roads on the inside – those places that are hard to see and not easy to send postcards from”, the places where one feels the most alone and where one inevitably travels alone. And yet, in order to give musical voice to these places, Tift has indulged in her desire to put together her dream cast, in engaging a number of guest collaborators, some in cameo roles.

The diversity of these cameos rather offsets the intentionally edgy, raw nature of the record, however, and not all of them prove entirely successful in helping Tift to realise her vision. Yet when things really come together the effect is certainly captivating and satisfying. Standouts for me here include the aching, Emmylou-like tonalities of Feeling Of Beauty, the wistful Too Soon To Go and the piano-led ballad Small Town Relations; while the more uptempo shuffle of To Myself is also persuasive. Perhaps the disc’s closer Marks, despite a promising start, lacks some focus and tends to ramble and overstay its welcome at close on six minutes, while tracks like the bouncier In The Way and Still Not Home don’t feel too distinguished by comparison with the album’s finest moments, but this is still not a below-average set and will maintain Tift’s credibility and reputation among lovers of Americana.

Sadly, the skimpy presentation of the bare promo disc doesn’t supply the necessary track-by-track performer credits, but it’s just about possible to identify a duet with Andrew Bird (on Drifted Away), and to glean from the release sheet that other participants include Marc Ribot, Rob Burger, John Convertino and Tift’s longtime collaborator Jay Brown. Capable production is by Tucker Martine.

www.tiftmerritt.com

David Kidman


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Polly Barrett – Mr. Bookshop (Own Label, no catalogue number)

The debut release from this Cork-based singer-songwriter came out in her native Ireland last year, yet even on its appearance now in the UK it’s in danger of being overlooked in the current glut of similarly lauded records, which would be a pity for it’s a charmingly underplayed set of self-penned originals that take their cue from, and make a virtue of, sparse and unadorned yet peaceful and gentle, musical backdrops. These in turn mirror the uncluttered purity of Polly’s voice, which bears an uncanny resemblance to early Nanci Griffith, as do the comforting twists and turns of some of her melodies. Dar Williams is also brought to mind: a connection that’s more than subliminally reinforced by the very title of one of this disc’s songs (February – and like Dar’s song of that name Polly’s is an album highlight).

Polly’s delivery is as honest as the day is long, directly and affectingly communicating her feelings and her narratives of failed relationships, yet with a knowing, almost sanguine detachment, while the bare-bones production enables key songs like the melancholy Quicksand, the self-denying Almost Friend and Sunday’s Well to retain the necessary close focus on the thoughtful lyrics. For much of the time, only one instrument (Polly’s simple picked acoustic guitar) is used; sometimes it’s engaged in affectionate dialogue with Michael Daly’s downhome rustic banjo. Even when Michael’s banjo and Josh Sampson’s deftly brushed drumkit are brought in to augment Polly’s voice, as on Synchronicity, there’s still an immediacy of communication that’s as compelling as the lightness of touch in the playing and in Tomás Mulcahy’s admirably clean production.

Those listeners not put off by any surrounding hype and able to give this wonderfully unpretentious disc an unbiased listen will find it a constant delight: indeed, one might say, a real turn up for the books!

www.facebook.com/pollybarrettmusic

David Kidman


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Chris Helme – The Rookery (Little Num Num Music LNNM10)

You might be wondering why a mainstream pop vocalist is being reviewed in these pages… but Chris is clearly showing his true colours here on this solo album, where he’s been given full studio rein to create music that’s arguably closer to his heart. And yet, even when taking on the (at the time unenviable) role of frontman-singer with John Squire’s post-Stone-Roses band The Seahorses, and then subsequently with The Yards, his vocal skills were self-evident, so he has no need to prove himself in that department.

But The Rookery, which was recorded in just nine days at a Bishopdale hideaway studio of that name, shows Chris to have even more to offer the discerning listener. Although in some ways a strange and off-beat collection, The Rookery places Chris’s charismatic voice in surroundings that demonstrate his understanding of sonic depth and texture as well as his appreciation of Brit-folk and psychedelia from the borderland of folk. The opening cut’s a pastoral little instrumental that all at once recalls Pentangle, Led Zeppelin 3 and Amazing Blondel, following which the heavier guitar (sometimes fuzzed) takes over as the dominant instrumental colour, all the while suffused with dense enhancements from mellotron and string distortions in the approved psych manner, and often building songs to a lush climax. At times the layered effect is akin to early Family, though perhaps not as strident.

Tracks such as The Spindle And The Cauldron, the weary Darkest Days and the lavishly-upholstered Plane are probably the standouts in a generally impressive set without any filler. Chris’s creative adventures explore different facets of the Brit-psych-folk spectrum, demonstrating his keen sensibility with the idiom, whether it be manifest in the plaintive but luscious romanticism of Good To Be In Love or the altogether harder-edged rock styling of Daddies Girl.

www.chrishelme.co.uk/

David Kidman


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Ian Hunter & The Rant Band - When I’m President (Proper)

Long revered as charismatic Mott The Hoople frontman before pursuing a successful solo career, Ian’s also been widely acclaimed as a songwriter, although this element of his personality has received less profile when overshadowed by his towering performing presence. Following a hiatus in the 80s, the death of Ian’s longtime collaborator Mick Ronson in 1993 was the catalyst for a renewal of creative energy, and last decade saw a trio of rewarding solo records, culminating in 2009’s Overboard, before he took his old band out on the road for a limited number of reunion shows. The old magic is still very much there; in fact, if When I’m President is anything to go by, that experience seems to’ve sparked a further stage in Ian’s creative rebirth while bringing the writing back from the political concerns of Shrunken Heads and Overboard into a more wry, even upbeat frame of mind – though he’s still plenty to say about the state of the world (and the Byron quote on the back cover is an interestingly percipient choice in that context).
Musically, there’s no softening of expression, for the new record’s infused with an archetypally tough, punchy character that harks back to the Golden Age Of Rock’n’Roll. Prime cuts like the feisty opener Comfortable (Flyin’ Scotsman), the straightahead, unpretentious What For and Saint (with its Eddie Cochran riff-rocker styling) are punctuated with bittersweet slacker-tempo songs like Black Tears (which has that signature classy Mott The Hoople combination of muscular-and-tender), the honest self-examining confessional Fatally Flawed, and Just The Way You Look Tonight (which sports some neat mandolin fills from James Mastro amidst other interesting touches of scoring). Wild Bunch, a rollicking piano-driven country-rocker with a gang vocal chorus, is followed by the disc’s strangest track, the atmospheric Ta Shunka Witco, which with its quasi-tribal beat pays tribute to the Sioux chief Crazy Horse. Ian’s son Jesse guest-vocals on the swaggering I Don’t Know What You Want, and the disc finale Life provides another example of Ian’s gift for writing story-songs with so much more than the ring of truth and experience. And incidentally, another instance of the excellent production, with the full-ahead punchiness of the Rant Band’s rock-band dynamic offsetting the more sensitive colours within the texture. Above all of which, of course, Ian’s distinctive, raspingly expressive vocal rides supreme and gloriously powerful. When I’m President continues Ian’s latest run of musical triumphs with abundant skill and authority.

www.ianhunter.com

David Kidman


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Matraca Berg – Love’s Truck Stop (Proper PRPCD107)

After a very long hiatus (14 years) in album releases between 1997’s Sunday Morning To Saturday Night and last year’s acclaimed set The Dreaming Fields, it’s come as a surprise to find this new offering following on so fast – and with it a further label switch, this time to Proper. But then again, you can hardly blame Proper for snapping Matraca up, can you?… Especially when the songs and music are this good – for it’s a real quality release, and that quality is a thoughtfulness of expression that complements the predominant state of resilient hope and ups the musical and emotional ante from the often chirpy tenor and more mainstream vibe of some of Matraca’s earlier hits (and that’s not in any way knocking her impressive track record for getting her songs covered, and charted, by all manner of country superstars). This latest eleven-song collection certainly contains some very fine creations, with Sad Magnolia, We’re Already Gone, Magdalene and Black Ribbons all standing out on first playthrough. And several other songs (like Waiting On A Slow Train and Her Name Is Mary) manage to be both catchy and pensive – not an easy feat to bring off – while second playthrough persuades me that there really isn’t a weak cut amongst the 11 tracks. I also really love the intimate, not-quite-stripped-down-yet-lightly-and-deftly-scored nature of the settings, which Matraca herself acknowledges were the outcome of white-heat creativity and her own personal interaction with just two musicians (Jason Goforth and co-producer David Henry), who had to be, and as it turns out were, the absolute right musicians for the task. Their soft, limpid, lovingly configured textures are centred round gentle acoustic picking and supportive pedal steel with string lines both bowed and plucked and just occasionally (as on the closing Fistful Of Roses) a piano underpinning: all of which reflects both the tenderness, compassion and strength of character inherent in the songs themselves, with their characters and storylines drawn from the struggles of everyday woman to follow their aspirations and survive in spite of the odds. And as icing on the elegant cake, there’s contributions from guest vocalist friends including, notably, Emmylou Harris (on Magdalene),Mindy Smith, Kim Carnes, Pat McLaughlin and Jeff Hanna. This album sure feels like a further stage in Matraca’s recent creative renaissance, and a vote of confidence for her departure from the more mainstream-commercial, necessarily over-produced sound of several of her earlier recordings.

www.matracaberg.com

David Kidman


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Chris Smither – HUNDRED DOLLAR VALENTINE (Signature Sounds SIG. 2047)

I’ve lost count of Chris’s album releases recently, because some of them seem to’ve been unavailable over here in the UK, but I was real glad to be able to source this latest offering. Upfront, I’ll say that no Chris Smither album can ever disappoint, so we’re starting with a high benchmark right away. And so it proves on this collection of new CS compositions in the time-honoured country-blues mould, Smither doin’ exactly what he does best, with that distinctive lazy, laid-back drawl of a voice serenading you with solid yet understated guitar picking that just does the trick, with an abundance of flair and style and not a little incidental virtuosity. The difference on this latest set is that on some tracks there’s a bit more instrumental scoring to contend with (I don’t mean compete with), which against initial expectations does actually enhance Chris’s meditations. Producer David Goodrich is known as a sympathetic guy who wouldn’t ever choose to over-egg the pudding, and his string arrangements on tracks like Over The Edge and Feeling By Degrees impart just the right degree of wistful expressiveness to the mix. And there’s plenty of those typically catchy melody lines with their twists and turns that couldn’t be anyone else but vintage Smither (check out Place In Line for starters…). The ancillary contributions of Goody himself, together with Kris Delmhorst (cello), Jimmy Fitting (harmonica), Ian Kennedy (violin) and Billy Conway (drums), are unfailingly superb, and just ideal (tickety-boo and diddley-bo!) in well complementing Chris’s signature delivery and suiting the varying moods of the songs themselves. Stimulating and interesting diversions are provided by album standouts such as the strong duet with Anita Suhanin (Place In Line) and the melancholy brooding of All We Need To Know (which kinda recalls Michael Chapman), while I Feel The Same deals succinctly with the all-too-familiar ending-of-a-relationship scenario and Make Room For Me brings us back to the trusty shuffling-raggy commentary mode we know and love. There’s also a fine “hidden” bonus track (Rosalie), tacked on casually at the end – and aptly, recorded “after-hours”. With not a single track that doesn’t deserve constant repeated play, this latest CD must be counted among Chris’s best – which in a 25-year-plus career is gonna have to be saying something.

www.smither.com

David Kidman


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Various Artists – HARBOUR OF SONGS (The Stables STABLESCD001)

This is a unique compilation that presents the final fruits of a commission by Milton Keynes music venue The Stables for a CD of new songs inspired by stories from The Lone Twin Boat Project (an attempt by performance artists to build a sea-faring boat from donated wooden objects). As 2012’s Artist-In-Residence for IF: Milton Keynes’ International Festival), Adrian McNally is the driving force, and his distinctive and highly developed management and production skills provide the unifying thread for the project. He invited contributions from a diverse range of musicians and songwriters, including some distinctly unlikely bedfellows, and the resulting sequence of 13 new songs (entirely inevitably) proves a hit-and-miss affair, partly due to the expected stylistic contrasts in both performance and writing and partly due to the equally expected unevenness of invention, not to mention the focus on individual artefacts rather than on a linear narrative of any kind. The Unthanks lend their musical talents to a good number of the tracks, and their presence (Rachel, Becky and Niopha’s voices, and/or their string quartet) is strong and characterful without suppressing the principals, who include top names like Steve Tilston, Ralph McTell, Alasdair Roberts and Janis Ian as well as rising-stars Johnny Kearney and Lucy Farrell (performing individually rather than together here) and Hannah Moulette, Australian singer-songwriter Sarah Blasko, The Leisure Society’s Nick Hemming and the award-winning outfit Villagers. The contribution by Barnsley poet Ian McMillan (Dream Of A Tree In A Spanish Graveyard), employs an eerily effective backdrop from the Unthanks and jazz trombone and trumpet, while writer Nick Hornby offers his singing voice on The Ruler and songwriter Guy Chambers takes a simple, idealistic overview on House Of Wood. It’ll be a matter of personal taste, of course, that not all of these tracks will appeal to every listener – indeed, there are two or three that I’ve tended to skip most times after initial hearing – whereas several contributions (Alasdair Roberts’ My Rola-Bola Board, Steve Tilston’s Sail On By, Sarah Blasko’s Simple Wooden Box and Janis Ian’s The Tiny Mouse in particular) have enchanted anew on each successive playthrough, and others (like Hannah Moulette’s carnivalesque Pampelmüsse & The Conjuror’s Stool adventure and Lucy Farrell’s delicate Carved In Two) both intrigue and satisfy. Presentation’s exemplary, for the accompanying booklet contains a wealth of detail in the background liner notes and full texts and performer credits. And the disc is distributed by Proper, by the way, so should be easy to obtain.

www.stables.org

David Kidman


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The Vagaband – TOWN AND COUNTRY (Eggsong Recordings EGGCD001)

This is the debut album by current festival favourites The Vagaband, a Norwich-based eight-piece that plays a soulful mix of roots Americana, jazz, blues and rock that at times is a bit of a hotch-potch but invariably proves entertaining as it keeps listeners on their toes with constantly changing colours and interesting ideas. As you’d guess, the breadth and versatility of the band lineup generates its own diversity of sounds, with guitars, mandolin, fiddle, banjo and country-style pedal steel competing with – and strangely complementing – ragtime-styled piano and New Orleans-type wind and horn lines from flügelhorn, saxes, and clarinet, with guests occasionally entering the fray on trombone, harmonica and cello. A pretty unique sound altogether, and one that’ll refresh and intrigue in equal measure. The band’s material is mostly self-penned, and down to José McGill (often in collaboration with another band member, either Greg Cook or Dan Reynolds); it ranges from the carefree Latin rhythm of The Bad And The Ugly to the mellow keening of Send In The Cavalry!, the epic spaghetti-twang of The Ballad Of El Molino to the sleazy country of Do Me Like You Did, the swaggering seventies sunshine pop of The River to the sinuous soft-kill groove of Potent Symphony, all capped off by the cheekily playful pair of tracks that brings the disc to a Beatlesque clapping-close (Tripping On Cheese and My Maria). The band also throws in an unusual, if thoughtfully skewed arrangement of Sixteen Tons (complete with a neat cor anglais solo!), which brings the total disc playing-time up to a generous 54 minutes that never seems to outlast its welcome. Bottom line has to be that these guys are really worth checking out, as much for the invigorating individuality of their sound as for McGill’s songwriting (I’d better mention that he’s also responsible for the album’s production). And what’s especially noteworthy is that their well-defined recorded presence is just as persuasive as, although clearly differentiated from, their proven live act.

www.thevagaband.co.uk

David Kidman


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Peter Bellamy - Barrack Room Ballads (Fellside FECD. 253)

Here’s another key reissue: one that will definitely be eagerly received by admirers of the iconic Peter Bellamy, sure, but one that will also inspire the more recent converts to the man’s art. It brings us the core (I’d say the very kernel) of one of the cornerstones of Peter’s many-faceted repertoire, that of his series of sharply-observed responses to (in the shape of brilliant musical settings of) the writings of the much-misunderstood Rudyard Kipling. His theory, that Kipling was influenced by English folksongs, was initially illustrated by his settings of Puck Of Pook’s Hill, then in 1976 he turned his attention to the Barrack Room Ballads. The resulting themed LP, containing a dozen of these settings, was issued on Green Linnet in the States and under licence by Free Reed in the UK, and now Fellside, having acquired the rights to these recordings, have reissued the LP in its entirety for the first time since its original appearance. Free Reed’s anniversary selection The Ballads Of Peter Bellamy contained several of the same titles, but in entirely different recordings, so the reappearance of the original LP, in its original form, as disc 1 of this Fellside two-for-the-price-of-one set, is to be heartily welcomed in its own right. Peter’s strident, confident, in-character delivery of these pieces is absolutely brilliant, and as definitive as it is uniquely idiosyncratic; he is accompanied on the album session by Chris Birch and Tony Hall. But there’s much more to celebrate here, for the claim of this Fellside set is to bring together in one place (and for the first time) Peter’s various Barrack Room Ballads recordings. To that end, then, disc two “mops up” with recordings of the remaining eight BRBs that Peter was to set, plus his settings of the three other Kipling songs not included in either of the BRB books (Private Ortheris’ Song, Follow Me ’Ome and Cholera Camp). Perhaps confusingly, however, the latter two mentioned, plus Ford O’ Kabul River, are here represented by recordings that are already available on Fellside’s Mr. Bellamy, Mr. Kipling And The Tradition set (which amongst other delights combined the Keep On Kipling and Songs An’ Rummy Conjurin’ Tricks albums). This means that only nine of this disc’s twelve selections are actually drawn from the privately-issued cassette of the 1990 production Soldiers Three, on which Peter was accompanied by Jamie O’Dwyer and a chorus of Keith Marsden, Steve Tilston and Nigel Schofield. That double-LP-cassette also contained new versions of the earlier, already-released settings, which however are not included here – with the exception of Billy ’Awkins, which features Peter in duet with Keith Marsden. I’d guess that Bellamy completists will be cherishing a hope that these few remaining tracks will see light of day on CD in due course… but for the meantime (and for the majority of enthusiasts) this handsome Fellside reissue will do the trick nicely, and can be counted one of the year’s essential purchases.

www.fellside.com

David Kidman


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The Mountain Firework Company – The Lonesome Losing Blues (Fretwork Union FWU001)

The Mountain Firework Company hails from Brighton – and this is their third album release. On this evidence, I’m surprised not to have come across them before, for theirs is a quite special brand of what might best be described as Americana, which is most persuasively, and (perhaps unexpectedly) effectively delivered in band songwriter Gareth McGahan’s distinctive Belfast accent. His delivery exactly mirrors his heartfelt writing style, and embodies elements of both traditional and contemporary expressiveness. Gareth’s reliable melody lines are given equally reliable support from various permutations of the standard bluegrass outfit’s complement, with some solid harmony work from fellow band-members Mike Simmonds (fiddle/mandolin), Simon Russell (double bass), Ewan Wallace (guitar) and Grant Allardyce (drums). The MFC’s trademark combination of dynamic drive and reflective power is best demonstrated on cuts like the opener Creeping Vine, the rockabilly-inflected Daylight Robbery and the title number, while Lower Me, Poor Girl and (especially) the closer Tonight all show the more tender, poignant and lyrical side to the band’s music. Yes, I can hear why the band will have gone down a storm at Glastonbury, but their studio presence is also very keen. The chunky digipack sports a veritable kaleidoscope of photographic montages, so it’s good to find full lyrics and credits presented in the enclosed slim booklet.

www.themountainfireworkcompany.com

David Kidman


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Big Session Festival 2012

"I've had my blood pressure tablets. I've had my cholesteral tablets. I'm ready!"

This wasn't what I expected to hear at a festival, but the Oysterband do attract an audience of all ages. The Big Session Festival 2012, run by the Oysterband, did not disappoint fans. Rather, it surprised.

The first year at its new location, Catton Hall, situatued between the River Trent and the National Forest, The Big Session Festival was a small but intimate affair. A small market place with a good book stall selling what would normally fall under the radar and a stall selling sheet music and instruments occupied the centre of the grounds. Mini melodeons had a good airing at The Big Session, with sales of the instrument and a popular mini melodeon workshop.

Friday night of the festival featured Chumbawamba and the Oysterband. Chumbawamba played a fantastic set on the Friday evening, and as always were political as well as very funny. Singing acapella as well as with acoustic accompaniment, they sang songs of local heroes and a Mexican soldier who survived a firing squad.

The Oysterband closed the Friday night with twenty songs from a list as voted by fans. They were joined on stage by former drummer Lee Partis in one of his obligatory kilts, as well as piper and whistle-player James O'Grady who has performed with the Oysterband for ten years. Old favourites such as The Oxford Girl were played as well as more modern well-loved tracks like Dancing As Fast As I Can and the audience participation song Everywhere I Go. Festival goers were well satisfied and looked forward to the following day.

For me, the stand-out acts on the Saturday were Magic Tombolinos, Abandoman and Treacherous Orchestra. The Magic Tombolinos are an energetic Spanish-led band who take their influences from jazz, pop and Gypsy music. I didn't have a clue what they were singing about, but it was a terrific flavour they were dishing out!

Abandoman are an Irish improv-rap duo, which may sound a bit dubious to many, but I was actually blown away by these two men and their sheer talent and ability to look at any object or hear any audience member's hobbies or favourite food and instantaneously incorporate them into a humorous rap.

As someone said to me as Treacherous Orchestra were tuning up, "What is the definition of a gentleman? A man who knows how to play the bagpipes but doesn't!" Well, I cannot say that is true in the case of Treacherous Orchestra. Following the likes of Lau and The Peatbog Faeries, Treacherous Orchestra take old jigs and re-invigorate them for a modern audience.

Sunday afternoon was led into the evening by Jon Boden and The Remnant Kings. This band, although featuring Paul Sartin and Sam Sweeney, had a very different sound and pace from Bellowhead. This new venture of Boden & Co look at what could happen if civilisation as we know it crumbles, and so the songs have a more thoughtful aura about them. With the aid of 'Edith' the Edison phonograph, Jon Boden and The Remnant Kings finished their set with a track reminiscent of 1940s crooning, exposing the delicacies of Jon Boden's voice with the brilliant musicianship we have come to expect from him and his associates.

Playing the song list from their tour of the USA and Canada two decades ago, the Oysterband and June Tabor brought us tales of politics and social need and gave them a human face. Along with the high standard of musicianship, there was something very powerful about seeing June Tabor in the flesh as she sang the stories of human struggle and triumph.

Show of Hands played a great set of old songs and new, from Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed to Country Life and Cousin Jack. They joined the Oysterband and June Tabor for the festival finale where they all sang acapella The New Jerusalem, sealing the festival with hope, and then finished with the festival's usual closing song and message, Put Out The Lights.

There were many acts at The Big Session that were unknown to me, but the one that stood out to me was Lucy Ward. Lucy Ward is local to the Derbyshire area, and known around the local folk clubs and smaller festivals in that part of the country. On the traditional side of folk, Lucy has a beautiful and mature voice that silenced the entire main arena. I had the pleasure of spending some time with Lucy, a positive young woman who has her feet firmly on the ground. My advice is Lucy Ward is someone to watch out for in the future. Lucy is playing at a number of festivals this summer but if you can't make any of them, I suggest you listen to her on youtube.com or have a look at her website www.lucywardsings.com

There was advice on The Big Session website to bring a chair. Many people - including myself and my mother did bring fold-up chairs because of our disabilities. A lot of provision was made for seated audience members, whose numbers swelled to around 400 in the main tent arena.

The Catton Hall site is very flat which was advantageous for people in self-propelled wheelchairs. However, the downside to a flat site is that the camping areas got a bit soggy with the rainfall. Several local hotels were linked in with the festival and a shuttle bus system took people to and from the hotels and the festival site. My mother and I stayed at Premier Inn. We found it clean and cosy, and the staff were professional and friendly.

John Jones of the Oysterband had walked from Leicestershire to the festival over a period of two days, and had been joined by a number of people on both days. John Jones has recently discovered walking and found that he is passionate about it. A blog of his adventures and a list of where he will be walking and when are available on the Oysterband website if you feel like joining the Oysterband's frontman as he hikes around the UK.

I would be interested in returning to The Big Session Festival next year to see how it grows. Moving from an indoor venue to an outdoor festival seems to have paid off. Well done, Oysterband!

www.bigsessionfestival.com

Catherine Hume


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BOOK REVIEW:

Sophie Parkes – WAYWARD DAUGHTER: AN OFFICIAL BIOGRAPHY OF ELIZA CARTHY (Soundcheck Books)

You might well ask: is this tempting fate? To publish an official biography of a performer who’s still very much alive, with a hell of a career still ahead of her… Well, OK, the officially stated rationale is that it celebrates the 21 years so far in the music business of Eliza Carthy: musician, singer, enthusiast, fan, researcher, broadcaster, working mum and much else besides. So, actually, this book is one that needed to be written at this time, just as Eliza is taking stock as she moves on to another chapter in her life (a concept I guess you’ll understand more when you read this excellent and admirably thorough account of her first 36 years.)

For this book really does have so many things going for it. Firstly, it’s about the right length (just 250 pages) to prevent boredom from setting in, and yet Sophie manages to achieve the seemingly impossible: telling her subject’s story by providing a healthy mixture of factual accuracy, exposition, narrative and informed commentary and assessment, and keeping a credible balance between the lady and the music. Secondly, it’s written in a sensibly readable style, friendly and accessible yet not afraid to stimulate or provoke reaction by presenting, though always with honesty and maximum respect, sometimes unpalatable or controversial information. Although at the very outset Sophie lays her cards firmly on the table, declares herself a big fan of her subject, and makes no secret of her admiration for Eliza as a woman as well as a musician, any element of idolatry in the text doesn’t ever fall into the trap of gushing, and much additional insight is gained from drawing out a wider context when bringing into the picture the reactions and responses of the world at large to Eliza and her at times overwhelming myriad of musical activities – and how she’s dealt with them in turn. And even when unable to sidestep some quite delicate matters, or difficult issues in Eliza’s life and work, Sophie manages to share with her readers abundant insights and confidences without ever descending to the devices of the gossip column or sensation-seeking tendencies (even the recounting of the more outrageous escapades is done with due perspective).

It’s generally the case that a biographer will be at pains to stake a claim for the special nature of his/her subject, but Eliza’s uniqueness can never be disputed after reading Sophie’s eloquent and persuasive account of her life and her (often not completely realised) contribution to so many aspects of the music scene (and not only “strictly folk”, of course). Taking us in commendable detail through individual life-episodes (early upbringing with the touring family; schooldays; the duo with Nancy Kerr; Chipolatas and Kings Of Calicutt; being courted by That Major-Label; back to trad; innovation and writing; the Ratcatchers; Imagined Village; child-raising of her own; and latterly a particularly diverse array of overlapping projects). Sophie’s really done her research, and taken into due account the highs and the lows, the uncomfortable and the easy, while assimilating and level-headedly assessing available critical commentaries and latterly blogs (although perhaps she’s been over-reliant on Twitter, you might say).

The bottom line is that Eliza’s a survivor: a fighter, and a hell of a role model for anyone, whether an aspiring musician or just a human being! Her dealings with others both in and outwith the folk or wider music scene, from family members to school acquaintances, agents and promoters to Warner Brothers executives, are candidly pursued through the text, and we learn much, most revealingly perhaps through Sophie’s frank and detailed conversations with Eliza herself and her extensive and often penetrating interviews with everyone from Eliza’s school music teacher to members of the extended Waterson: Carthy clan, via musical collaborators past and present, and of course friends and family. And to aid us in working out exactly who’s who and where they all fit into the scheme of Eliza’s life, Sophie has usefully included a basic family tree at the front of the book.

The format of the biography is basically linear and thus fairly strictly chronological, but with some entirely necessary leaps sideways or across to follow whatever strand of activity is relevant, not necessarily tangentially. This approach might not have worked so well were it not that Sophie has the ability to, stay focused even when pursuing a mercurial aspect; it’s only when Sophie relaxes a touch, into the final chapter, that the more discursive, ruminative nature of the task in hand at that juncture brings with it a slight tendency to ramble – but after all, this can easily be seen as a reflection of the difficulty of predicting where Eliza will go next and where she will take her life and music.

I remain a touch unsure about Sophie’s decision to append as an Afterword a 28-page sequence of fans’ answers to a pre-determined common questionnaire; in the end I warmed to this more, simply because it further proved Sophie’s thesis that Eliza’s been such a huge – and varied – inspiration for so many different people. Admittedly, the majority of the fans questioned seem to have come to Eliza’s music quite late in the day (Sophie herself being no exception, it turns out) – but there are plenty of well-chosen soundbites from fellow-musicians who rate her many talents highly and are quick to agree on how much they enjoy working with her professionally. And everyone seems to agree on her very positive personal qualities too: that key combination of serious, earthy commitment and a keen sense of fun, an entertainer and an educator informed by the natural (rather than specifically feminist) employment of the power of being a woman. Sophie’s assessment is that Eliza’s innate humanity and generosity, and her willingness to champion others, matches both her passion for music in all its guises and her outspokenness and already legendary determination.

The book contains a fascinating collection of personal photographs, to some of which Eliza has granted access for the first time, and the main text is supplemented by textual footnotes and a list of books, articles and other resources for further reading, with useful website links including one to the most comprehensive of the available discographies. The book’s standard of editing is very high – welcomingly so, considering the slipshod proofreading I’ve come across in some music biographies – and here I only found one minor typo and a naming slip-up. But there’s an additional irony here in that (although I’ve reviewed several of Eliza’s album releases over the years) the only factual error I was able to spot in the entire book (although I obviously wouldn’t ever claim true infallibility!) was the misattribution of a live gig review to me! Such is life I guess…

But the acid test of a good biography is whether after finishing it the reader feels they’ve actually come to know the subject well (or even at all); the answer here is a resounding yes – and all congratulations to Sophie for achieving this difficult feat.

www.soundcheckbooks.co.uk

David Kidman


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Ruby Muse – RED GUITAR IN A BLUE ROOM (Liquid Air Music LIQ002)

Ruby Muse is British electro-acoustic duo Julie (Jools) and Malcolm Heyes, and Red Guitar In A Blue Room is their second CD (the first, RM, came out in 2006). The story goes that it came about last year from a mixed bag of raw studio tracks that were sitting gathering dust, and which Malcolm decided were too good to lose out on a potentially wider audience than just family and friends; a short time later, and given the benefit of further studio polish and arrangement, this collection is the end-product. And it’s a very classy set one indeed. It comprises eleven original compositions by Jools and Malcolm, on which the duo creates their own strong defining sound that transcends the diversity of inspiration and musical style/idiom that we encounter within. Both Jools and Malcolm are very good musicians – Jools plays guitar, piano and mandolin while Malcolm plays guitar, bass and drums, and so they’re easily able to achieve a credible and full small-band sound when needed. It really is nigh impossible to fault their playing. Or indeed the songwriting, which ranges from honestly confessional to colourfully poetic according to the story being told, and draws knowing cultural influences from painters, poets and playwrights (Vermeer, Shakespeare) as well the more orthodox concerns of the modern storyteller. And although there may be nothing startlingly original here, equally there’s no shortage of decent lines and easy hooks. Musically, the invention embraces a wide spectrum of sources and inspirations from alt-country to folk-rock, country to southern rock, jazz to classical, and Malcolm and Jools prove adept at moulding their musicianship into any of those genres. Every musical gesture, from shifting dynamics to cathartic solos, is impeccably judged, and the music convinces anew on each separate track without any sense of auto-pilot or painting-by-numbers clichés. I’d guess the closest parallel or reference point would be Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac or later Pretenders maybe, with an accomplished and thoroughly professional feel and attitude that’s akin to a number of hard-working and better-than-workmanlike outfits on the enhanced-acoustic genre-crossing circuit. That doesn’t mean that Ruby Muse’s work is anonymous, I hasten to add… Although no one track can be regarded as significantly weak, inevitably some have a stronger initial impact than others; The Painter scores with its delicate traceries, Mr. Horizon brings an attractively laid-back lounge-jazz groove, Can’t Figure You is shot through with honky-tonk heartbreak, and the closing fun instrumental Cat’s Whiskers (misleadingly described as a jig!) is more the bees’ knees! There’s some great violin embellishment (from guest musician Hannah Gimeno-Palmer) on the latter and on the hope-filled Shine, while the flute part on the duo’s 9/11 song Reverie is played by youngest daughter Amy. The whole album is easy on the ear, and its solid virtues ought to ensure it gains wide appeal.

www.myspace.com/rubymuse and www.rubymuse.co.uk

David Kidman


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Paul Brady – DANCER IN THE FIRE: A PAUL BRADY ANTHOLOGY (Proper PRPCD. 101)

The rationale for this well-filled new anthology, compiled by Paul himself, was to gather together a collection of tracks that represented his own personal favourites and include several that in his opinion have perhaps not received the exposure they deserved or else been overshadowed by his acknowledged “greatest hits”. The 22 tracks on this double CD have thus been drawn from anywhere and everywhere amongst Paul’s 15 solo albums to date, with the specific exceptions of his most recent CD Hooba Dooba and the 14 tracks that had already appeared on the Nobody Knows best-of collection that came out in 1999. What marks this collection apart from other similar anthology exercises is the commendable presentation, where Paul’s honest and informative personal liner notes add a new dimension of appreciation to the experience of listening to – and in many cases re-appraising – the songs themselves. Having said that, I’m not altogether convinced that even by doing so some of these songs will ever attain the status of favourite Paul Brady recording that they clearly have done for Paul himself. And I’ve never really got on with Paul’s breezy Caribbean-style adventures and pop grooves, which to my mind don’t entirely suit the songs, or with the tendency towards over-arrangement that’s often disguised the writing with blandness. For me there’s always been too much 80s-gloss to the arrangements, however interesting the songwriting. Also, it’s no secret that Paul’s been a big fan of Gerry Rafferty’s records, especially the Baker Street era, and he’s probably harboured more than a desire to attain a comparable degree of commercial cred, hence the overly mainstream demeanour of The Long Goodbye, and to a lesser extent Hard Station. But there are still plenty of good things here, and certainly a number of lesser-known songs like Trouble Round The Bend that do merit further exposure. And gorgeous moments like The Awakening still have the power to move. There’s also the fact that some of the original recordings have been out of circulation for years, and the additional carrot to be taken into account is that a number of the tracks are taken from different, alternate or rough mixes (Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore, Steal Your Heart Away, Duncan And Brady, You Win Again, Steel Claw), singles (the iconic Crazy Dreams) or demos, and thus are of interest to the Paul Brady completist; maybe I can’t quite appreciate the added intimacy of the “original vinyl pressing mix” of Dancer In The Fire, for instance, but it’s good to know where the differences reside. But I gotta be honest, it’s the folk-inflected pure magic of moments like I Am A Youth That’s Inclined To Ramble that for me will always provide the most memorable Paul Brady experiences – and that’s despite Paul’s fantastic singing voice being strongly in evidence on every other cut here too. Actually, I don’t find myself returning to Paul’s solo records all that often; and notwithstanding Paul’s personal integrity in anything he produces, I really don’t suspect this new anthology will do much to change my mind.

www.paulbrady.com

David Kidman


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Girlyman – SUPERNOVA (Girlyman Inc, GM004)

The year after releasing their fourth studio album Everything’s Easy in 2009, one of the Atlanta, Georgia-based band’s singers, Doris Muramatsu, was diagnosed with leukaemia, and everything became far from easy for several months before fortunately the cancer went into remission and the band could be reborn. Out of that difficult time came the thirteen songs that together form Supernova, which turns out to be a masterful collection that resonates with the hope at the end of the tunnel of uncertainty and transformation. Like the supernova, in fact, the dying star out of which new stars are given birth. The musical idiom of this new collection is much like the band’s previous work – accessible and exceedingly well-crafted folk-pop, quite rich in wistful delicacy and stylish vocal harmonies that have been compared to Simon & Garfunkel and bittersweet melodies that (especially on tracks like No Matter What I Do) are uncannily reminiscent of late Beatles. You can’t argue with that assessment, nor with the classy quality of the songs and performances, even if in the end there’s probably nothing much to shout from the rooftops about. In some moods, it’ll wash over you, whereas in other moods you’ll just want to listen, to let the lyrics and sentiments soak into you and make their mark. Which some of the 13 songs will do more than others… It’s all very well managed, with plenty of textural contrast and much adept swopping-over of lead and support duties by the ever-versatile band members (now making a quartet with the recent recruitment of former Po’Girl drummer JJ Jones), but if I’m brutally honest even some tasty guest appearances from Michael Connolly (mandolin, fiddle), Julia Biber (cello) and Indigo Girl Emily Saliers can’t quite compensate for the lasting impression being of music that’s often merely a pleasant diversion (not that it’s a bad thing, for there are many more boring and far less listenable albums around!); but for what it’s worth, Supernova has nevertheless made more of an impression on me than the band’s previous albums.

www.girlyman.com

David Kidman


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Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Anders Parker & Yim Yames – NEW MULTITUDES (Rounder 1166191392)

This review must, I’m afraid, begin with what might seem an inordinate amount of exposition… The starting point is the unpublished and/or uncompleted works of Woody Guthrie, from which Billy Bragg and Wilco started the ball rolling in the late 1990s when they were invited by Woody’s daughter Nora to make recordings of some of those lyrics, the results appearing on two successive Mermaid Avenue records (now reissued with a bonus third disc of further recordings, hopefully to be received for review shortly). There were, of course, still a very large number of lyrics (and fragments of lyrics) remaining in the stash at the Woody Guthrie Foundation, and some of these formed the basis for subsequent ventures by Blackfire and Jonatha Brooke and last year’s multi-artist collection Note Of Hope. The New Multitudes project is more of a direct successor to the Bragg/Wilco recordings; following an intensive period of sifting through the Guthrie Foundation archive in 2006 (with Nora’s blessing), it almost by accident ended up concentrating largely on lyrics from Woody’s earliest songwriting years in the 30s in Los Angeles. Initially it was to be a solo album by Jay Farrar, leader of Son Volt (the outfit that evolved out of Uncle Tupelo in parallel to Wilco), but Jay took on board for the sift Anders Parker (of Gob Iron and Varnaline), and the two then recorded a handful of songs before inviting Yim Yames (alias Jim James of My Morning Jacket) in to collaborate and then Will Johnson (of Texan indie-rockers Centro-matic) to help flesh out the musical settings. Thus was the New Multitudes project born…

We need also to remember that – in Nora’s own words – “Woody was a spewing fountain of words”, and thus sometimes the musicians needed to whittle his sheer number of verses down a bit (or a lot in some cases!). Consequently, even though the primary focus of the set’s dozen songs is inevitably going to be the lyrics (in whatever state of abridgement they’ve ended up here), the music is pretty much engrossing in its own right, and covers a diverse array of styles within the loose bracket of Americana. Each of the four protagonists here takes lead vocal duty on the three selections for which he also supplied the music, and although this inevitably points up differences in the musical personalities there’s a greater overall consistency than we might expect. I was surprised to find that Yim’s responsible for the strongest items, from the majestic sweeping mellotron-backed My Revolutionary Mind to the interesting collation of familiar sources that makes up Changing World via the troubadour-style Talking Empty Bed Blues (which is neither spoken nor a strict blues). Jay’s contributions are companionable in character, arguably more folk-rock in style than Americana, with the title track ending the disc as more of a mantra than a song. Will’s contributions are the most diverse, varying from the desperately yearning sparseness of Chorine My Sheba Queen to cranking up grungey riffs on No Fear and pounding electric-Dylan-style harmonica with guitar distortion aplenty on VD City. After those adventures, Anders’ contributions bring a different complexion, from the wistful, yet almost casual calm of Fly High to the tough, Crazy Horse rolling Angel’s Blues, with only the fairly anonymous modern-day guitar rock of Old LA disappointing.

The second disc contains 11 bonus cuts recorded at the same sessions; in one or two cases these prove not much more than fragments, though to be fair we’re not left with the feeling that these are just leftovers, sweepings from the proverbial cutting-room-floor, and there are some reasonable lyrics among them that don’t deserve to be left in the vault. In terms of the music, Anders takes six of the cuts, Jay the remaining five; they don’t possess quite the same degree of stylistic variation (or musical interest) as those on the first disc, with several tracks veering uncertainly towards rock and further away from Americana models, whereas once again there are hints of familiarity in derivation (San Antone Meat House rather obviously references the infamous Rising Sun for instance). But cuts such as the plaintive World’s On Fire and the sinister Atom Dance make the second disc worth having, even if its total playing time only stretches to a mere 33 minutes.

The package contains an integrated 36-page booklet that usefully reproduces the lyrics for all 23 items in the form of facsimiles of Woody’s original jottings – but, somewhat curiously in view of the importance of the project, there are no background notes supplied.

www.newmultitudes.com

David Kidman


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Marvin Etzioni – MARVIN COUNTRY! (Nine Mile Records, no catalogue number)

Marvin really is a name from the past – so you might need reminding that he partnered Maria McKee in the band they co-founded, the mighty Lone Justice. He’s not released a record in nearly twenty years (the last of his trio of acclaimed solo albums was 1994’s Weapons Of The Spirit), so this new double CD could be assumed to be intended as handsome compensation for that long absence from the recording scene. But after all that, it only achieves a total playing time of 67 minutes, and although it has its moments, it’s a rather oddball, and thus wayward, experience musically, which might prove too unorthodox for some listeners; I admit I find it quite stimulating, although at times quite frustrating too, not least in its sense of soundbite-brevity and hit-and-miss creative impulse. Interestingly too, it’s not really got much of the character of a solo album, and although “Mandolin Man” Martin is a very able multi-instrumentalist he only does four or five tracks strictly on his own (one of these involves fairly pointless samples of Gram Parsons’ voice, so I guess that doesn’t count!), including the stripped-down Cash-style melancholy of A Man Without A Country and Miss This World. Elsewhere, Marvin’s deliberately structured each track as a duet of one sort or another, filling the various collaborative roles with illustrious names from his well-stocked address book. Inevitably, therefore, it’s some of those collaborations that provide the set with many of its highlight moments. Lucinda Williams on the heart-rending country ballad Lay It On The Table; Maria McKee on the lush steel’n’strings-soaked opening cut You Possess; the Dixie Hummingbirds on the light-textured gospel of You Are The Light; and at the other end of the emotional scale Buddy Miller on the bouncy Living Like A Hobo, Richard Thompson on the cheery, admittedly throwaway accordion-backed It Don’t Cost Much (which he turns out to’ve co-written with Marvin) and John Doe on the determinedly grungey Grapes Of Wrath. Disc 1 is altogether more consistent than Disc 2 in terms of quality, although on the former the dubiously tongue-in-cheek massed choral harmonica glory of Bob Dylan Is Dead (huh?!) rather complements the latter on its scratchy rockabilly vibe of What’s Patsy Cline Doing These Days?), fun for a while ok, as is the self-consciously kooky space-anthem Where’s Your Analog Spirit? with erstwhile Lone Justice collaborator Shane Fontayne (and I rather like the tag-line “only the song will survive”); whereas perhaps that second disc’s finest moment comes on the seven-minute bluesy workout Trouble Holding Back. Otherwise, too much filler on that second disc methinks. With some judicious pruning, though, and a couple more decent songs, Marvin could well have produced a finer new solo album I suspect, rather than the over-eccentric curate’s egg that is Marvin Country!.

www.marvincountry.com

David Kidman


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Twilight Hotel – WHEN THE WOLVES GO BLIND (Cavalier Recordings CR255602)

This CD only reached me a couple of months back, under the guise of a re-promotion of last year’s release to tie in with a UK tour back in April which it had missed by a week or two! Well it turns out that Twilight Hotel’s music is dazzling, and more than sufficiently intriguing to warrant special effort on my part to try and catch them when they next get to tour hereabouts. In fact I’d go as far as to say that it’s one of the most compelling discoveries of my year so far. Some background first, then: Twilight Hotel is a vehicle for the songwriting and musicianship of Brandy Zdan and Dave Quanbury, who originally hail from Canada (Winnipeg) but have latterly relocated to Austin, Texas. They’ve been combining their talents for around eight years, first taking on the name of Twilight Hotel for 2006 album Bethune (actually their second record together) and subsequently for the followup Highway Prayer – which didn’t reach me for review (more’s the pity). All their material is self-penned; here five tracks are by Dave, two by Brandy and the rest joint compositions. But the writing style of Twilight Hotel as a unit is both consistent, unusual and strongly individual, as is their sound: dark and moody, with emphasis on vintage guitar timbres and rough-edged rootsy instrumentation that hauntingly combines the worlds of rock’n’roll and alt-country, often with an added, almost cinematic dimension. The tracks Frozen Town and The Darkness at the disc’s epicentre evoke the lonesome stasis world of Cowboy Junkies (Brandy’s an amazing singer too in her own right), whereas the seductive What Do I Know About Love? seems to reference twisted gypsy carnival music and Ham Radio Blues resembles a doomy Link Wray shuffle with a younger Tom Waits at the helm. The ghost of Neil Young permeates Mahogany Veneer and to a lesser extent Dreams Of Letting Go, while there’s also a sense of the epic about Golden Eagle that harks back to the more majestic psych-rock of the early 70s with its soaring guitar lines and strong organ presence. The album sound is very full, although every element is clearly defined and thoughtfully guided within the total sound picture; to this end Brandy and Dave have enlisted four key additional musicians – Stephen Hodges (percussion), Jeff Turmes (basses, banjo, saxes), Andrew Lynch (flugelhorn) and John Whynot (keyboards), the latter also responsible for the album production (and what a marvellous job he makes of it!). Twilight Hotel sure have a lot going for them, and although When The Wolves Go Blind finds them at their most charismatic and hypnotic it’s not an album to pass your ears without disturbing and challenging your preconceptions too. Excellent, brilliantly evocative and truly distinctive.

www.thetwilighthotel.ca

David Kidman


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Matt Andersen – COAL MINING BLUES (Busted Flat Records BUSTED051)

Matt’s name wasn’t familiar to me, so I was unsure what to expect from first acquaintance – but just a half-minute into this CD and I was convinced I’d known his music for years somehow. His delivery for a start – a tender, naturally soulful voice of telling maturity that wraps snugly around – and is wrapped around by – his own expert guitar playing (acoustic or electric, he’s great on both). His songs (those on this particular disc, at any rate) have the hallmark of classic 60s soul, blues and R&B, a feature emphasised by the equally classic mould of the supremely tasty musical backdrops he and album co-producer Colin Linden have arranged, which involve organ, piano, saxes and a tight, solid-state rhythm section. It’s as authentic as they come, and yet Matt hails from Canada (New Brunswick)! For some unfathomable reason, Matt’s able to get right inside of the idiom through his original songs (all but two of this disc’s dozen tracks), which are a model of true sensitivity. They deal mostly with relationships: not specifically with coal mining as it turns out, although the CD’s title song is the exception, being an intensely touching exploration of the personal heroism of the coal miner himself. Surprisingly perhaps, the overall mood of the album is quite upbeat, for Matt’s a survivor and he thoughtfully wants to honestly share his experiences for our good. Again despite the album title, this isn’t a blues album in any conventional sense, for it’s never that weary, downtrodden, woman-driving-man-mad syndrome but rather more of a positive celebration of what a relationship can achieve, an unpretentious and affectionate statement of a man’s emotional needs and responses that when all’s said and done is perfectly reasonable and as undemanding as it is natural in any good relationship. Harsh aspects of life are tempered with an unusual (for blues) degree of lyricism, and that tenderness I noted in Matt’s delivery comes from a true understanding of the working of relationships. Songs like Make You Stay, Baby I’ll Be and She Comes Down say so much in so little space, and take all the time they need to get right to the heart of things, yet simply and with no messing. No doubt much of the album’s classic and timeless roots-soul feel is down to it being recorded in Levon Helm’s studio in Woodstock, NY, with a crack team of musicians that really know the part – notably keyboard players John Sheard and John Whynot (Lucinda sideman) and sax player Jim Horn – and the presence of Amy Helm (from Ollabelle) on backing vocals and an appearance from The Band’s Garth Hudson (accordion on Home Sweet Home). The tracks more or less alternate between gutsy and fresh-minted uptempo outings and keenly felt, if sometimes longish soul ballads, with occasional sidetracks into folksiness (the guitar- and mando-backed Willie’s Diamond Joe) and gospel. It’s a compelling set, and its 53 generous minutes pass swiftly – quite simply because the listener can’t fail to get involved due to the believable nature of the lyrics and the overriding (yet entirely rightly so) presence of Matt’s extraordinary singing. A real discovery, and a very fine set indeed.

www.stubbyfingers.ca

David Kidman


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Viper Central – THUMP AND HOWL (Own Label, no catalogue number)

This splendid Vancouver outfit first came to my attention with a timely UK-tour-linked re-promotion two years ago of their excellent 2008 debut The Devil Sure Is Hard To Please, a hard-hitting bluegrass-oldtime set that delivered more in its measly 29 minutes than most albums do in twice that timespan. As far as lineup is concerned, well Viper Central’s nucleus of Kathleen Nisbet (fiddle & lead vocal), Steven Charles (guitar & harmony vocal), Tyler Dean Rudolph (banjo & harmony vocal) and Mark Vaughan (mandolin) survives intact, with the addition of Tim Tweedale (dobro) and Patrick Metzger (bass), and (all too occasionally it seems, on this showing) contributions from Lorraine Cobb (harmony or lead vocal). So it’s not entirely clear who’s permanently in the band… Anyway, the playing’s enthusiastic and invigorating, refreshingly creative while steeped in the bluegrass tradition – and despite the skill and virtuosity there never feels the need to shout about it or show off, for the musicianship’s always employed at the service of the songs. Or instrumentals (five of the album’s 14 tracks, these including two scintillating examples of tunes from the Canadian Métis fiddle tradition – tho’ shame the final one’s faded out – as well as one great original apiece by Tim, Tyler and Mark). The songs aren’t quite evenly shared out in terms of authorship, but Kathleen’s four selections are disc highlights (tho’ I’d single out A Northern Midwife and Captain perhaps) and Tyler’s catchy uptempo tale of The Donkeyliner’s Waltz (a true yarn from the lumber camps of northern Ontario) provides a further standout. Then again, Steve contributes a couple of marvellously authentic gospel-tinged songs – the true-as-a-die Come ’Round My Lonesome Ones and Hanging Ground, the latter also a showcase for Kathleen’s vocal expressiveness – and the whole band chip in on the rockin’ swing of the title song, while the tracklist is completed with a beautifully mournful cover of Bill Monroe’s The One I Love Is Gone where Lorraine excels on the vocal lead. Instrumental chops aside (and the dobro and fiddle work in particular deserve special mention), Viper Central is perhaps in a minority among bluegrass-type bands in having not just one but four really characterful lead vocalists and plenty of opportunity for inventive and often edgy vocal harmony work too between the singers (on Captain and Donkeyliner’s Waltz, which involve Lorraine too, we’re approaching hillbilly harmony heaven!). The keen sense of commitment and sheer joy in performing that I noted in the band’s debut has not diminished one iota, and Thump And Howl’s special brand of old-timey bluegrass, with its imaginative splashes of western swing, rockabilly, folk and even jazz, can be thoroughly recommended – as can a ticket to one of their upcoming live shows (touring Ireland and then the UK from late June and on through July).

www.vipercentral.ca

David Kidman


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Peggy Seeger – LIVE (Appleseed APR CD1129)

Recorded in 2010 on a stage in New Zealand to raise money for an arson-damaged local women’s centre (hey, what a typically “Peggy” cause!), this latest release both entirely accurately represents and proudly celebrates the consummate entertainer, communicator and commentator that is Peggy Seeger. This performance, for all that it has been edited, forms an object lesson on how to engage and hold an audience’s attention over a long timespan, in this case with the most varied possible selection of material, all delivered in that characteristically clear, genuinely ageless voice. Anyone who has seen Peggy live will know that she makes everyone feel at home with her from the start, and that we’re all on the same side (whatever our politics) – although it’s also a safe bet that she’ll convert you to at least one extra cause before the evening’s out!

The set-list reproduced on this 65-minute CD is a very typical one, in that it unashamedly includes and intersperses the most diverse of elements: on the one hand a sprinkling of contrasted traditional American folk ballads (Fatal Flower Garden, Mountaineer’s Courtship), a song culled from the Lomax recording of a prison inmate (I Been A Bad Bad Girl), a banjo-song medley and the playful kids’ song Bought Me A Cat, and on the other hand songs of woman-power (the right-on sarcasm of Everyone Knows) and deep political conscience both of mordant wit and earthy humour. These may be brief (activist Bob Bossin’s priceless Deterrence Lullaby), or ultra-wordy (Peggy’s celebrated I’m Gonna Be An Engineer, which gets its obligatory airing – she even lovingly refers to it as her “albatross” here! – as do a further generous helping of Peggy’s own songs including the laconic You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are, For A Job and Give ’Em An Inch, the curiosity Missing, and the genuinely moving, even heartbreaking observation Everything Changes (written for her mother, as recently as 2008).

Peggy’s supreme skill as a songmaker is complemented by her skill as a raconteur, and there are plenty of jokes (and serious inferences to be drawn) snuggled cordially into the running-order, along with what the press handout brilliantly describes as “tart (spoken) hand grenades into sexist pomposity”. Peggy herself moves easily and expertly between banjo, guitar and piano, and brings on harpist Bob Bickerton, mandolinist Nathan Torvik, and her own partner Irene Pyper-Scott for cameo contributions here and there. The whole CD perfectly reflects the concert experience, in fact.

www.peggyseeger.com

David Kidman


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Jen Ord – MANY’S A MILE (EP) (Haystack Records HAYCD002)

Although she grew up with parents involved in local clog and morris sides at home in Cumbria, Jen’s a new face on the folk scene as performer: a singer and pianist who’s bravely developed her own unique take on her chosen material. Her warm, rich and pure-toned voice betrays a certain degree of formal study, and her technique is very assured. A classical training informs her stylish self-accompaniment too, thereby imparting a romantic sensibility to her interpretations by embellishing the song’s message much as it would in the performance of a classical Lied (art-song) rather than in a more consciously “folky” manner. The intensity and surprising lushness of the music-making on this four-track release, Jen’s debut recording, might for some be almost too much to take in one sitting, but I found myself captivated to the extent that I’d wished the record were a full-lengther. The carefully considered theme of the EP is the agony of distance between lovers, as expressed in two different scenarios. The disc contains two examples of each: its title is taken from Live Not Where I Love, and in tandem with I Wonder What Is Keeping My True Love Tonight (most famously, perhaps, covered by Kate Rusby on her Sleepless album), that pair of songs explores physical separation, whereas The Cuckoo and Alistair Hulett’s poignant Song Of A Drinking Man’s Wife both concern a breakdown in communication and understanding. The last-mentioned song, performed unaccompanied, is particularly sensitively handled. Indeed, the hallmark of all of Jen’s treatments is a certain quality of “expect the unexpected”, for Jen is nothing if not thoughtful in her unashamedly individual takes on songs that are, or are likely to be, familiar to the seasoned folk enthusiast. The Cuckoo is a good example, where rippling piano arpeggios usher in unexpectedly jazzy syncopations, lending an unusually carefree tripping demeanour to the proceedings while underscored by a sumptuous string arrangement (courtesy of Jen’s brother Pete and involving her twin sister Kath and three other musicians). Live Not Where I Love benefits from an intelligent use of the selectively florid string quartet colouring, but this time with acoustic guitar (Dan Wilde) in place of Jen’s piano. Jen’s interpretation of I Wonder… gains an extra dimension through the restless piano and double bass accompaniment, which is overlaced by some imaginative and unsettling vocal harmonies. As you’ll hear, then, each track is treated refreshingly differently, as befits Jen’s heartfelt and personal take on the songs; this is the mark of an enviably empathic interpreter, one who’s not afraid to experiment in order to realise and communicate her extra-ord-inary (pun intended!) vision of the song. I greatly look forward to hearing a full-length CD from Jen in due course.

www.facebook.com/jenordmusic

David Kidman


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